Thursday, November 16, 2006

What The Election Means For Religious Conservatives

By Deal W. Hudson
November 15, 2006

In a national conference call with religious conservatives, Sen. Sam Brownback said that President Bush squandered the mandate of the 2004 election by pursuing social security reform when he could have taken action on an important social issue, such as the federal marriage issue.
He also rejected the idea that the election represented a repudiation of social conservatism because the Democrats who were recruited to beat incumbent Republicans were precisely that, social conservatives! Six of the Democrat freshmen are pro-life -- the biggest group since the eighties.

Pro-abortion Republicans, Brownback pointed out, were the biggest losers. A dozen of them are not coming back and that represents about half their total. Congressional Democrats, as a result of who won, are slightly more conservative than before, while Republicans are significantly more conservative.

Patrick Hynes, author of In Defense of the Religious Right, asked Sen. Brownback what religious conservatives can learn from their five losses on ballot questions: Arizona's same-sex marriage amendment, California's parental notification initiative; Oregon's parental notification initiative; Missouri's embryonic stem cell and human cloning initiative; and South Dakota's abortion ban.

Sen. Brownback stated that in Missouri, social conservatives were out-spent 20-to-1 and every major Republican state office holder, including the governor, supported the measure. Nevertheless, the measure only passed with 50.3 percent of the vote.

Regarding South Dakota, Sen. Brownback suggested that going for the full ban with no exceptions for rape and incest may have been a mistake. Nevertheless, he applauded the initiative as a courageous effort to launch an important national debate.

Sen. Brownback agreed that the failure to pass the same-sex marriage amendment in Arizona is of great concern. Arizona, he said, became the first state in the country to reject such a ban by democratic means. Sen. Brownback echoed a previously expressed sentiment that religious conservatives need to work especially hard in the interior west Sunbelt region to counter a vibrant libertarian sentiment.

There was a significant, but not a huge change, in the religiously active vote. Here are the overall numbers for the 2006 mid-term election:

Among voters who attend church at least once a week (45% of the electorate), 53% voted Republican and 43% voted Democrat. (Down 5 points for the GOP from 2004 and up 4 points for the Democrats.)

Among those who attend church "occasionally" (38% of the electorate), 59% voted Democrat and 39% voted Republican. (Up 5 points for the Democrats from 2004.)

Among those who say they never attend church (15% of the electorate), 67% voted Democrat and 30% voted Republican. (Up 5 points for the Democrats from 2004.)

Also on the conference call was Michael Schwartz, chief of staff to Sen. Tom Coburn, who stressed that the "election was not Democrats vs. Republicans but Republican promises vs. Republican performance, and corruption and the failure to deal with critical issues -- immigration, Iraq, energy -- led voters to lose confidence in the Republican Party."

Drew Ryun, coalition's director for the American Center for Law and Justice, reported that the Republican National Committee attributed this drop in support to the fact that Republicans did much less to reach out to religious conservatives than in 2004. "You cannot make the promises the Republican Party made in 2004 to conservatives then take no real action on them and expect conservatives to continue to vote you back into office," he said. Ryun, whose father, Congressman Jim Ryun (KS), lost his election, thinks this election proves that without the full support of religiously active voters, the GOP becomes a minority party.

"The silver lining to this election," Ryun said, "is that conservatism did not lose, but a Republican Party that forgot its base did." For Ryun, and everyone else who spoke on the call, the 2006 election should be a wake up call to Republican leaders who take the Evangelical and conservative Catholic vote for granted.

Martin Gillespie, director of Catholic Outreach at the RNC, read a list of pro-life legislators who lost their seats, including Sen. Rick Santorum (PA), Sen. Mike DeWine (OH), Cong. Ann Northrup (KY), Cong. Melissa Hart (PA), and Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (PA). They lost, in part, because the "Catholic vote" moved strongly towards the Democratic Party in key states: 20 points in Ohio, 11 in Pennsylvania, and 9 in Michigan.

These are numbers of self-identified Catholics and not only Mass-attending Catholics, who consistently manifest more support for candidates representing a pro-life, pro-family position. The all-important breakdown between self-identified Catholic voters and religiously active voters is not yet known.

Gillespie noted that the issue of moral values, which was the number one concern of voters in 2004, moved to number five in importance, below Iraq, terrorism, corruption, the economy, and immigration. (web site)

Gillespie, who lead the RNC Catholic Outreach in 2000 and 2004, echoed Ryun in noting that fewer GOP resources were put behind courting the religiously active voter. (web site)

The good news is that Republicans are well positioned to take back the House in 2008. Several seats were gifts to the Democrats (DeLay, Foley, and Sherwood), and it will be exceedingly difficult for Democrats to get re-elected to these seats in two years. If new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces a dilemma such as letting the Democrats go wild, they will alienate the general public; if she holds them in check, they have a problem with their base. As one commentator put it, "She will retain the majority only if she is smart and the Republicans are stupid."

Finally, it should be said that religious conservatives will be haunted by the loss in South Dakota's abortion referendum for the next twenty years. This loss will be cited in 2008 as a reason for softening the pro-life plank in the Republican platform. For the first time in 34 years, voters were asked to decide whether killing people is right or wrong. This was in reputedly one of the two or three most pro-life states in the nation, and they chose death.

On a side note it is sad, but instructive, that on the first day of the annual Conference of U. S. Bishops meeting in Baltimore, president Bishop William S. Skylstad (Spokane), issued a four-page letter condemning the war in Iraq but uttered not a word about the voting results on the gay marriage ban in Arizona, the fetal stem cell referendum in Missouri, or the abortion referendum in South Dakota.

Religious conservatives have supported the GOP steadily since Ronald Reagan was first elected in 1980. But neither Evangelical nor conservative Catholics have ever become anything like a reliable voting block comparable to African-American support for the Democratic Party. The reason is obvious: The religiously active voter has to be won over with each election, by each candidate and each party platform. From a religious perspective, that is as it should be, since a person's faith should dictate political choices rather than vice versa.

The addition of religious conservatives to the GOP since the Goldwater era is what has given Republicans the electoral edge over the past thirty years. The pressure is on Republican leadership to blame the "Religious Right" for the 2006 election losses. It is doubtful, however, they will succumb to the temptation to ignore what Sen. Brownback and so many others see in the election results: A clear and decisive commitment to the social issues of religious conservatives appeals to the majority of American voters.


Deal W. Hudson is the director of the Morley Institute for Church & Culture. This web site will be updated on a daily basis, and we invite your recommendations for improving its content. You can reach my staff and me at the following address:


Note -- The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, views, and/or philosophy of GOPUSA.