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News Analysis

Social conservatives kept to the kiddie table


President Bush’s Jan. 29 State of the Union speech served as a rousing and emotional rallying cry for many, but provided little in the way of inspiration -- not to mention programs or funding -- to the faith-based wing of his party, more concerned about abortion, school prayer, limiting gay rights, and education vouchers than tax cuts or the military budget.

“We choose freedom and the dignity of every life,” the president intoned at the close of his 55-minute address, even there contrasting American beliefs with the values of those who “send other people’s children on missions of suicide and murder.” On cue, as Bush spoke the words “dignity of every life,” the television cameras panned to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, providing a visual aid for those who missed the antiabortion code words.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Back in February 2000, and the make-or-break South Carolina primary, it was about explicit promises -- to support restrictions on abortion, to promote school prayer and vouchers and, foremost, to not be John McCain, whose jibes at Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell represented an intolerable breach of Republican etiquette. According to this version of history, Bush owes his presidency to the party’s religious conservatives, who rescued him from political oblivion in South Carolina after a near-disastrous defeat in New Hampshire. And now it’s payback time.

Or is it?

Catholics and fundamentalists

The Bush White House has, no doubt, tended to religious conservatives, which they define as church-going Catholics (who gave him nearly 60 percent of their vote against Al Gore) and fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants. The president talks the talk -- speeches sprinkled with references to the “culture of life,” the push for a “Faith-Based Initiative,” and a domestic program developed under the rhetorical rubric of “compassionate conservatism” all point to an administration that wants to keep a core constituency satisfied. And the administration gained some additional points in its proposed fiscal year 2003 budget by including a tuition tax credit for parents of private and parochial school students (not likely to pass) and through its announcement that unborn children are eligible for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Beyond that, there have been plums, invitations, meetings and appointments:

In March 2001, across from The Catholic University of America, the president, surrounded by a flock of U.S. cardinals, spoke at the opening of the John Paul II Cultural Center. Four months later he presented a Congressional Gold Medal to the family of the late Cardinal John O’Connor.

His political and policy operatives seek weekly advice, and give it, to their allies on the Catholic and Christian right. Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick dined at the White House residence, while Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony delivered the blessing at the administration’s only state dinner, honoring Mexican president Vicente Fox.

Appointments, both significant (longtime Catholic right activist Robert Reilly to head the Voice of America) and ceremonial (Rockville Centre, N.Y., Bishop William Murphy to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) are delivered with sensitivity.

The American Conservative Union’s state-based leaders are treated to a personal presidential briefing, while the Unification church-underwritten “Faith-Based Summit” hears from Attorney General John Ashcroft and other administration luminaries. “The Weyrich Strategy Lunch” -- named for Coalition for America chairman and religious right founding father Paul Weyrich -- receives regular briefings by leading administration officials.

Make no mistake about it, says Michael Schwartz, vice president for government relations of Concerned Women for America, the social conservatives have a “seat at the table” in this administration.

But while it’s clear that the economic conservatives (pro-tax cut and anti-regulation) and the national security conservatives (pleased with the war on terrorism) are sitting with the grown-ups in the West Wing, it’s also apparent that the social conservatives have been relegated to the kiddie table. They are, it seems, easily satisfied with soothing words and scrumptious morsels, but not quite ready for polite company.

The president, for example, did not make an appearance before last month’s Right to Life March in Washington, a gritty grassroots affair that brought thousands of his most loyal supporters to the White House gates. Instead, his comments were phoned in and blared over loudspeakers to the thousands gathered to commemorate the 29th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

‘A teeny, tiny bit insulting’

“I’m sure that pro-lifers appreciate the gesture,” wrote National Review’s Jay Nordlinger. “But isn’t it just a teeny, tiny, eeny, beeny bit insulting?” The previous year was worse. As thousands began to gather for the 28th anniversary march, First Lady Laura Bush was telling NBC’s Katie Couric that she supported Roe v. Wade. The president was not seen, nor his voice heard. Instead, he sent a written statement.

The problem, of course, is that the social conservatives are viewed as intolerant -- and that is among the worst things to be in American politics. Says Schwartz, an in-the-trenches veteran of the capitol’s culture wars, “The administration knows they can’t kick their base away, but they want to send a message to different voters [everyone but the religious right] that ‘We don’t really belong to them.’ ”

That distance made it difficult for religious conservatives to get much done in the first year of Bush’s term.

On the education bill, for example, faith-based conservatives were routed. “They sent a signal very early on that vouchers would not make or break” the education bill, says former Clinton administration deputy assistant for domestic policy William Galston.

On embryonic stem cell research, meanwhile, a Solomonesque Bush rejected the advice of those, such as Pope John Paul II and the U.S. Catholic bishops, who called for a total ban, and instead allowed federal funding for research on existing stem cell lines. And while the administration supports below-the-radar measures to restrict abortion, such as banning U.S. funding for groups that support abortion in foreign countries, the once-ballyhooed ban on partial-birth abortion (twice vetoed by President Clinton) has not come to a vote since Bush assumed office. Supporters of such a ban say a June 2000 Supreme Court overturning of a Nebraska law restricting late-term abortions, has stymied the effort.

What happened to the power of the Christian right? For starters, says presidential counselor and political strategist Karl Rove, they are losing their most important lever: the ability to bring Republican voters to the polls. It is a self-induced electoral rapture that threatens Republican hopes for the future.

Bad news for Bush

“If you look at the model of the electorate,” Rove told pundits and policy wonks assembled at a December 2001 American Enterprise Institute gathering, “and you look at the model of who voted [in the 2000 presidential election], the big discrepancy is among self-identified, white, evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals and fundamentalists. … There should have been 19 million of them, and instead there were 15 million of them.” The fact that 4 million stayed home has Rove worried: “I think we may be seeing … some return to the sidelines of some of the previously politically involved religious conservatives.”

That’s bad news for George W. Bush and the party he leads, particularly as they fight to keep control of the House and regain a majority in the Senate. Between 70 and 80 percent of the 15 million voters in the 2000 presidential contest who fit the Rove demographic -- “white, evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals and fundamentalists” -- voted for Bush over Gore.

Meanwhile, the Washington-based religious conservative infrastructure -- exemplified by the Christian Coalition -- is not what it once was. The December departure of Pat Robertson from the group revealed a downward spiral, in both fundraising and influence that will not be easily restored.

The president’s war-driven popularity -- he is viewed favorably by 80 percent of the electorate and by even higher percentages among religious conservatives -- makes it that much more difficult to mobilize the socially conservative base on any given issue. “With a war going on and everyone wondering when the next terrorist attack is going to come,” says Ethics and Public Policy Center Vice President Michael Cromartie, “it’s really hard for those groups” to activate their grassroots supporters.

Social conservatives and their representatives in Washington, moreover, are “inclined to welcome any Republican,” particularly after eight years of Bill Clinton, says Schwartz. “They see only black and white and not shades of gray.” And George W. Bush, war president and born-again Christian, is one of the good guys, and hence, gets the benefit of many doubts.

Joe Feuerherd is a journalist living in Maryland.

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002