As the Governors’ Association meeting in Miami this week suggests, the Republican Party in defeat faces an acute identity crisis. If they try to move in the direction of the successful Eisenhower presidency, making themselves a common sense, problem-solving party, they would probably precipitate the formation of a breakaway third party representing the religious right, perhaps called the Christian Party.
The current Republican excitement over Sarah Palin suggests, however, they may choose to continue on the course set by George W. Bush. Palin holds multiple wacky religious opinions: creationism (Genesis read literally); the imminent end of time and the coming of the Rapture (the saved suddenly wooshed up to Heaven); and a belief she won her race for governor of Alaska because of a laying on of hands by an African clergyman noted for chasing a witch out of town for causing automobile crashes. She now says that she is waiting for God to tell her whether to run in 2012.
To win elections Republicans will need to distance themselves from “social conservatism” and the religious right.
It was little noticed that the 2008 Republican platform – I’m not making this up – promised to end all abortions without exception. That includes pregnancies brought about by rape, incest, or abortions needed to protect the life of the mother. The party of Bush and Karl Rove is in a hole and with Palin would continue digging ever deeper. But can the Republicans ditch Palinism?
George W. Bush transformed the center-right party of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and his father, George H.W. Bush, into the political instrument of the religious right, tying the party to the evangelical protestants and to such Catholics as made the culture war central to their politics. In 2000 Bush-Cheney got 75 percent of the white evangelical vote.
This has had significant political consequences: federal funding for all embryonic stem cell work was blocked; federally funded faith-based initiatives (abstinence only) were begun; and the theory of evolution became politically controversial for the first time since the 1920s.
In a speech in Irvine, California on April 24, 2006, Bush even gave a religious reason for the Iraq war.
I based a lot of my foreign policy on some things I think are true. One, I believe there is an Almighty, and secondly, I believe one of the great gifts of the Almighty is the desire in everybody’s soul, regardless what you look like or where you live, to be free. And I believe liberty is universal. I believe people want to be free. And I know that the best to defeat the enemy, the best way to defeat their hopelessness and despair, is the ability to give people the chance to love their life in a free society.
In that glimpse into his muddled thinking, almost everything Bush said was shown to be false. After all, God tells Islam rather different things than he tells Christians. Today very few societies are free. Over the long course of human history from the ancient world to the present, the number of free societies is microscopic. God hasn’t been working very hard. Bush believes a lot of other things, including that God wanted him to be president (Deborah Caldwell, Christian Ethics Today, Spring 2005).
The lethal problem for Republicans is that while religion of a particular kind is central to their party today, it is also toxic to moderate, independent, suburban, young and, more inclusively, educated voters.
Another problem is that not all religious Americans agree with the core Republican positions. John Danforth, former senator from Missouri and now an Episcopal minister, spoke out in favor of embryonic stem cell research in 2006. Missouri voters agreed with him, passing the relevant constitutional proposition and defeating incumbent Sen. James Talent, who opposed stem cell research.
As Lincoln said about the North and South in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both read the same Bible and worship the same God, and invoke His aid against the other.”
And the policy preferences of the religious right do not command anything like majority support. Majorities among voters and in Congress support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, oppose the repeal of Roe.vs. Wade,and opposed congressional intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.
In David Brooks’ New York Times column of November 11, “ Darkness at Dusk” he addressed the fact that in the fight over the future of conservatism, one side was urging tax cuts, restricted immigration and were rallying behind Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Sarah Palin. Brooks urged “reformers” to “pay attention to the way the country has changed. Conservatives have to appeal more to Hispanics, independents, and younger voters. They cannot continue to insult the sensibilities of the educated class and the entire East and West Coasts.”
Brooks predicted that Palinism, enforcing doctrinal purity, will win “in the short term.” He doesn’t need to add that the victory of Palinism among Republicans will fail to lead to electoral success. To win elections, Republicans will need to distance themselves from “social conservatism” and the religious right.
But putting clear blue water between moderate Republicanism and the religious right would undoubtedly give rise to a third party, a breakaway Christian Party. Such parties are familiar in American history, most recently in 1968 with George Wallace’s American Independent Party, and going back through Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace in 1948.
Our Third Evangelical Awakening, which has lodged itself in the Republican party, will eventually begin to fall asleep, as did the two previous Awakenings, only more rapidly this time because of the spread of education and accelerated methods of communication.
But if the return of common sense and the spirit of Eisenhower is accompanied by a breakaway third party, that does not mean the Republicans would automatically suffer. In 1948, Harry Truman survived challenges from a third party (Wallace) and a fourth party (Thurmond). Common sense Republicans should be courageous and fight against the fanatics if they are to win again.
Jeffrey Hart is professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth College. He wrote for the National Review for more than three decades, where he was senior editor. He wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, when governor of California, and for Richard Nixon.