There has been a lot of recent chatter about where the Republican Party goes from here, with "here" being the substantial drubbing it suffered six weeks ago. What receives much less attention is the question of where the party's most dedicated supporters – the Christian right – go from here. For eight years there was little or no conflict between the leadership of the party and the leadership of the base, as President Bush filled both roles. But as the GOP comes to grips with the fact that it was not Our Leader's hard-right social views that won him two terms in the White House, the relationship between the political figureheads of the party and the base becomes increasingly dysfunctional.
For years the religious conservatives in the GOP were represented by a series of fringe-y candidates in presidential primaries – Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan, or even Pat Robertson himself in the 1980s. Every four years there had to be one candidate who believed the Earth to be 6000 years old, a person who joined the electoral fray for no reason more apparent than appeasing a voting bloc and giving the rest of us something to mock. Then George W. Bush came along and the movement finally had a candidate who would not be rejected out-of-hand as a joke. The result is a religious right that wildly overvalues this single example and inherently considers its type electable; in other words, if the GOP could find George W. Bush then it can find another George W. Bush. Having sat at the head table for eight years, the Dobsons and Robertsons of the world are not about to go back to the kids' table.
This goes a long way toward explaining the completely overboard reaction of the RR to Sarah Palin. One day they never heard of her, the next she was their savior. If you assumed that her public humiliation would dampen the enthusiasm, rest assured that the fawning has not abated since the election. A recent cover of the Focus on the
Family Anus magazine shows exactly to which horse James Dobson is hitching his wagon:
Gov. Palin and her son Prop
Note that the "Bright Future" tag actually refers to a story about promising research on treating Down's Syndrome…but it takes little imagination to see the double entendre. I've said plenty about my opinion of Sarah Palin's political future, which resembles the Hindenburg much more than a rocket to the moon. It makes clear, however, the importance of the challenge facing the post-W GOP – how can it find someone who appeases what is now its core constituency while also having a half-decent chance to win elections? The fundies don't believe that Palin is the best Christian in the political world – they believe she is the next George W. Bush, the person cast in their image who can appeal to everyone. Even when Palin inevitably disappears the need to fill that role will remain.
There is an excellent piece up at Christian Century about how religion is doing more to divide the GOP than to unify it. The author notes:
In the wake of (the election), the Republican Party has nothing more important to resolve than the consequences of its having become, for a generation, the political home of a conservative religious ideology. Much if not all of the divisive, mocking use of religion in our politics flows from that fact. Unless the party of Bush, McCain and Palin calms the ideological waters, we will be living with the division and mockery for years to come.
Earlier in the same article a pastor in Texas is quoted as saying, in part, "Christian conservatives are going to have to decide whether having a Christian president is really important or not." Are they going to dig their heels in on Palin? She is essentially the ideological successor of Buchanan, Keyes, and Robertson in earlier elections – the token Bible-thumper more likely to be called "kook" than "nominee." Conversely, they could be content to forfeit symbolic representation to support someone who isn't one of them but appeases them on the issues. Even in 2008, a year in which Evangelical support for the GOP remained overwhelming, the anecdotal evidence suggests that "nice to us" is not good enough. It has to be "one of us," a stubborn position that will keep them "living with the division and mockery for years to come" as the linked piece concludes.
The sad truth is that the religious right never has been, and certainly is not now, as big as it thinks it is. The GOP can't win without appealing far more broadly, no matter what Rove Wisdom v.2004 stated. And herein lies the puzzle. Someone like Mitt Romney or John McCain would probably behave in office in ways that would placate the religious right. But neither Romney (Mormon!) or McCain (Secret Liberal!) are "one of them." And the average non-Evangelical Republican, a person who isn't much of a fan of abortion or gay marriage or whatnot, cares not at all if the candidate who holds such positions is an authentic God-fearing end times Protestant. Republican Suburbia – the real reason Bush won twice – is content getting its Republicanism from a Mormon, Hindu, Jew, Catholic, Protestant, or agnostic.
Republicans are looking for someone to lead the party to electoral victory. Not only do they not insist on a Dobson-approved fundamentalist, but many would prefer to avoid such religious litmus testing at all costs. As the nation becomes less homogeneous this is not only logical but also a nod toward self-preservation. Unfortunately "logic" and "self-preservation" are not terms accurately applied to the worldview of people like Pat Robertson.