A Warning to the GOP

Deal W. Hudson
November 24, 2008

In an op-ed published after the election, former Governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman wrote, “Unless the Republican Party ends its self-imposed captivity to social fundamentalists, it will spend a long time in the political wilderness.”

And who are these “social fundamentalists?” In Whitman’s political lexicon, they are “the people who base their votes on such social issues as abortion, gay rights, and stem cell research.”

When I read Whitman’s column I had three thoughts:

  1. Why is she putting the label “fundamentalist” on fellow Republican voters?
  2. Does she know she’s also talking about Catholic voters who consider non-negotiable issues before casting their ballot?
  3. Is she asking Catholic and Evangelical voters who care deeply about these issues to leave the party and declare themselves independent?

It’s remarkable that someone who considers herself a leader in the GOP would go out of her way to antagonize millions of voters who have been dependable Republicans for over three decades.

Whitman and the other GOP leaders who have made post-election stabs at social and religious conservatives had better start minding their manners. Whatever happened to the “Big Tent”? The Republican Party may find itself hemorrhaging its most zealous constituency.

Did Gov. Whitman not hear the roar that went through St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center the night Sarah Palin walked out on stage? Here is Whitman’s take on Palin: “Her selection cost the ticket support among those moderate voters who saw it as a cynical sop to social fundamentalists, reinforcing the impression that they control the party, with the party’s consent.”

Gov. Whitman knows very well that the pro-life, anti-gay marriage conservatives don’t “control” the party – such a claim will bring laughs from anyone familiar with the inner workings of the RNC.

Really, Whitman isn’t worried about control; she wants an end to the pro-life plank of the party platform. She wants to take the pro-life pressure off GOP candidates, especially on the national ticket. If the GOP abandons its public stance against abortion and gay marriage, she thinks the “moderates” lost to Obama will return.

Whitman’s numbers are telling, but they don’t actually support her argument. She notes that Kerry won 9% more moderate voters than Bush while Obama stretched that number to 21% against McCain. But if moderates are turned off by “social fundamentalists,” why would they have cast 6.4 million more votes for the evangelical George W. Bush? Kerry was just as liberal as Obama on social issues, and mainline Protestant McCain was more reticent than Bush in discussing them.

Whitman doesn’t mention what is widely recognized as the major cause of the moderate swing to Obama: the economy. In exit polls, Obama led by nine points among the two-thirds of voters who said the economy was the most serious challenge facing the country. Add to that the increased voter registration and turnout among Democrats, deep discontent with the GOP, Democrats’ targeted appeals to sections of the Republican coalition, and you have the reasons for Obama’s victory.

The moderates were not casting ballots against Sarah Palin or the social and religious conservatives she represents – this election was not a referendum on abortion or gay marriage. How could they be when John McCain almost never brought them up?

In reality, McCain’s reticence on social issues contributed to the fact that 4.1 million religiously active voters did not go to the polls on Nov. 4. If there is a warning for the GOP from the presidential election results it is this. As Karl Rove noted, “Americans aren’t suddenly going to church less; something was missing from the campaign to draw out the more religiously observant.”

If Whitman has her way, something will soon be missing from the entire Republican Party that will keep religious conservatives – or should I say “social fundamentalists”? – from serious engagement in GOP politics. Whitman is calling out a potential voting group of 30,000,000 Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, and Mainline Protestants.

In the final chapter of my recent book, Onward, Christian Soldiers, I posted this question for the future, “Will the Democrats Get Religion, Will the Republicans Keep It?” Obama won, in part, because he successfully courted religious voters – the Democrats successfully found religion, at least for one election cycle.

Did the GOP lose religion? No. But when over four million religiously active voters stay home there was certainly what Evangelicals call “backsliding.” If Gov. Whitman has her way, the GOP will offer voters nothing different from the Democrats on abortion and marriage. If that happens, the Republican Party can wave goodbye to religious conservatives.

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