The Party has made a name for itself resisting the most excessive and unwise liberal social changes that have occurred since the ‘60’s. We did this under the influence of a conservative ideology that recognizes the dangers in social engineering and government meddling in individual values. But with the addition of a new brand of religiously inspired social activists since the ‘80’s, the Party has begun to forge a different direction. By adopting the language, tactics, and ideology of left-wing radicalism under the guise of conservatism, the Party is losing sight of what it means to be “right.”
Voters influenced deeply by their faith have long been a core of conservative support. A political party built on respect for individual rights and religious freedom is a natural home for people who care about the role of religion in both personal and public life. But the religious movement that is moving the Party in our time is not inherently conservative in outlook.
The religious wing of the Party is increasingly unsatisfied with conservatism as a philosophy. In the name of returning the country to an imagined prior ideal of monolithic religious and social values, they are pursuing an unprecedented level of government interference in private life. Their goal is to remake the culture, though the meaning of that goal is ill-defined and largely left to individual interpretation (misinterpretation?). Their willingness to use the machinery of government to promote their religious values and trample civil liberties along the way is decidedly not-conservative.
Until recently, this rhetoric of “family values” and “culture war” was closely tied to the Nutjob Gambit. It was a cynical tactic deployed in an often disingenuous way to manipulate a core of highly motivated voters and volunteers around a largely meaningless agenda. It took the form of campaigns to outlaw things that were already illegal like “gay marriage” or to “protect our children from porn.” It stoked pointless fears, a kind of sleight-of-hand move to distract them from more important issues. In short, it was a method of raising money and support without making promises for which anyone could be held accountable.
But voters moved by these issues are growing more sophisticated and, especially since ’94, have taken on positions of real authority inside the Party. Increasingly they are able to field successful candidates who are true believers, not just cynics who are aiming to buffalo them.
Over time, this might turn out to be a good thing. Authenticity is a value in politics almost regardless of its shape. What’s more, I would argue that the average religiously influenced voter really hasn’t changed much in the past quarter-century. They are like most Americans, right-of center, favoring basic civil liberties for all and reasonably suspicious of government interventions in the private sphere.
The trouble is that this political movement climbed to power on the Nutjob Gambit and it is having trouble leaving that legacy behind. One would expect that in time a capable, credible figure will emerge to unify and bring reason to this fringe, but in the meantime it is dominated by thought-suffocating demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and James Dobson.
The challenge for the present is to keep religious voters engaged in the Party without allowing the revolutionary fringe, fed to a frothy hysteria on the Nutjob Gambit, to drive the country into a ditch. For this to happen, courageous conservatives will have to stand up to the extremists in a forceful way. The best method for action is to promote what the Party truly stands for, without becoming bogged down by the nutjob rhetoric. How well we do this in our decade will likely determine how well America will perform over the coming quarter-century.