When Christian abolitionists created the Liberty Party in 1840 with hopes of enacting their agenda into law, it could fairly be said that the party was a political arm of liberal Christians.
But to suggest, as former Republican senator John Danforth did in a much-discussed New York Times essay last week, that today's "Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians," is to confuse the relationships within the GOP. Republican leaders are wooing conservative Christians, not being controlled by them.
The argument that the Republican Party is no longer a secular organization where conservative Christians find acceptance, but rather an entity wholly owned and operated by the Christian right is commonly made by the political left. What made it newsworthy this time was that its source was a former Republican senator and U.N. ambassador who also is an ordained Episcopal priest. Yet Danforth's standing as a highly accomplished Republican politician and minister does not make the argument any more accurate.
"The elements of this transformation have included advocacy of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, opposition to stem cell research involving both frozen embryos and human cells in petri dishes, and the extraordinary effort to keep Terri Schiavo hooked up to a feeding tube," Danforth wrote.
"The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active," he wrote. "It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that it has become the political extension of a religious movement."
Well, if three legislative initiatives are all it takes to prove that a political party has been taken over by a sect, then clearly the Democratic Party is wholly controlled by the radical environmentalists. Or maybe it's the radical feminists. Or the lawyers. Or the unions. Pick one, and your argument would be just as persuasive as Danforth's, whose assertions just don't hold up to close scrutiny.
Yes, President Bush has urged passage of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. But Vice President Dick Cheney opposes an amendment, and the idea has gone nowhere in Congress because of opposition from Republican leaders.
On stem cells, Bush did not support banning embryonic stem cell research, nor do most Republicans. He issued an executive order allowing the use federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells -- but restricting that funding to lines already in existence. It was a compromise designed to please both sides. That is hardly an example of a religious edict being imposed by the chief mullah.
Congress did pass legislation ordering a federal court review of Terri Schiavo's case. But it did not order her to be kept alive, nor did it send in the troops to rescue her. And the same week the Schiavo review bill passed, House Republicans moved to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Danforth forgets that Senate Republicans elevated the pro-choice Sen. Arlen Specter to the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, through which all judicial nominations must pass, that last year's Republican National Convention exhibited a who's who of pro-choice GOP politicians, and that aside from former Attorney General John Ashcroft, President Bush's cabinet members can hardly be described as evangelical Christian activists.
Neither are Republicans at the state level uniformly pushing a conservative Christian agenda. Constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage have passed in many states -- approved by the people, not just GOP politicians. But in Iowa, Senate Republicans last year killed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and appear likely to do so again this year. In New Hampshire, Republicans last week killed a bill that would make it a crime to injure a fetus during the commission of a crime. In California, pro-choice Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger backed last year's bill to dedicate state funds to embryonic stem-cell research.
Danforth's other evidence that the GOP is now wholly controlled by conservative Christians was that Republicans have put aside their traditional fiscal conservatism in favor of a radical religious agenda. To the extent that there is any such thing as a tradition of fiscal conservatism in the GOP, it does not revolve around reducing spending or the federal deficit. It is almost wholly housed in the anti-tax movement, which has been wildly successful since 2001. President Bush pushed tax cuts long before he pushed an amendment banning same-sex marriage. And Republicans have delivered, passing significant tax reduction and planning to pass more.
Moreover, the secular GOP agenda for President Bush's second term -- including Social Security reform, tort reform, changing immigration law, and promoting democracy abroad -- has not taken a back seat to a religious agenda.
In the states, the big topics are mostly Medicaid reform and taxes, not stem cells or same-sex marriage.
Danforth's case is so erroneous because he made the mistake of basing a sweeping assertion on a few high-profile instances. A closer look at the GOP will show that he missed the herd for all the loud elephants running ahead of it.
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