Remember everything we were told about the 2004 election? You know, the one held on the day the Enlightenment died, when America was conquered by Jesusland. The religious right had already taken over the Republican Party; with the re-election of President Bush and GOP gains in both houses of Congress, it seized control of the entire United States government.
Karl Rove, Garry Wills informed us, was a brilliant strategist who correctly "calculated that religious conservatives...would be the deciding factor." Sitting next to Wills on the New York Times op-ed page, Maureen Dowd pouted that Republicans prevailed "by dividing the country along the fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule," thanks in no small part to a "devoted flock of evangelicals." The values voters' message was clear: make way for the emerging fundamentalist majority.
Now forget all of that, because the old conventional wisdom has been supplanted by the new: the religious right is dead -- or at least anachronistic. Karl Rove foolishly bet this year's midterm elections high turnout by voters who care about conservative social issues and lost. The GOP was a casualty of religious conservative overreach.
The most interesting theory of social conservatism's reduced political relevance is that the GOP has tilted too far in the direction of the evangelical South and alienated the libertarian West by pursuing policies that fuse religious fundamentalism with big government. This idea originated in journalist Ryan Sager's book The Elephant in the Room and it has been spreading ever since the 2006 returns came rolling in.
Hotline editor Chuck Todd warned that "the libertarian West" is "more up for grabs than it should be. And it's because the Republican Party has grown more religious and more pro-government which turns off these 'leave me alone,' small-government libertarian Republicans." The last two Lexington columns in the Economist have been devoted to this meme, the first noting that "this election cycle was a dismal one for the so-called theocrats," the second speculating that "non-southerners have grown particularly impatient with the South's brand of in-your face religiosity." David Weigel, Reason's smart political analyst, predicted, "In future elections, that skeptical segment of the country will only grow larger."
Perhaps it will. But for now, the libertarian West versus the fundamentalist South meme seems like a new twist on an old staple of post-election commentary. Whenever the Republican candidates do well, there is hand-wringing about the power of the religious right; when the GOP loses, these social conservatives are surely to blame.
The 1992 elections, with "The Year of the Woman" and Bill Clinton's 33-state victory, was supposed to ratify a new socially liberal consensus. If the Republicans wanted to hold power ever again, they would need to jettison culturally conservative positions on abortion, homosexuality and religion in the public square. Just two years later, Republicans took control of Congress with significant help from conservative Christians holding these same forbidden positions. Similar predictions of the religious right's demise in 1996 and '98 ended up being equally unfounded.
And the most recent spate of commentary about the Republican Party's religious right albatross may prove no more prescient in an election cycle or two. The Economist's Lexington hedged prudently, proclaiming Christians conservatives "down but not out." But like most bits of conventional wisdom, the recent commentary about declining Dobsons does contain a grain of truth -- as well as some oversimplifications.
Republicans are indeed having trouble in states like Arizona, Montana and Colorado while mostly maintaining in the South. It was a bad year for socially conservative ballot initiatives and a few of their favorite candidates. The experience of holding power made all conservatives too comfortable with government.
But the difficulties are in the details. Voters in the so-called libertarian West didn't want the government to leave them alone when it came to the minimum wage. Colorado elected a pro-life Democrat governor. If the Arizona marriage amendment had been worded more carefully or if the South Dakota abortion ban had included exceptions for rape, incest and fetal deformity, it is easy to imagine both results turning out differently.
Neither the obsessive social conservatism of the GOP nor the refreshing new libertarianism of this year's Democratic candidates holds up under careful scrutiny. Religious rightists won a largely symbolic and ultimately futile bill forcing federal courts to hear Terri Schiavo's case; they were rebuffed by the Republican-controlled Congress on the federal marriage amendment and embryonic stem-cell research.
Likewise, the Libertarian Democrats rarely did more than make promises about Iraq and the Patriot Act their colleagues are unlikely to help them keep while acceding to their regions' political consensus on gun rights. And in Bob Casey, Pennsylvanians got a senator to the left of Rick Santorum on economics who would ban abortion even in cases of rape and favored the Terri Schiavo intervention.
None of this is to suggest that Republicans should go back to believing the post-2004 aggrandizement of the values vote. Just as rugged individualism isn't the same thing as libertarianism, a broad cultural conservatism doesn't necessarily translate into full support for the Beltway religious right's agenda.
Yet pundits should be more skeptical of analysts who draw electoral maps in which the Bible belt is ostracized. The Christian right's recent history is full of resurrection stories.
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