Six months ago, you couldn’t open a newspaper or tune into the nightly news without bumping up against the U.S. Christian right in the form of candidates falling over each other to woo conservative evangelical voters in the Republican primaries.
One day it’s Michele Bachmann defending the “pray away the gay” clinic she and her husband run, the next it’s Rick Perry declaring himself an overnight born-again in national newspaper ads. Herman Cain finds himself in a sex scandal and launches into an a cappella performance of Amazing Grace instead of answering reporters’ questions. Rick Santorum scorns Barack Obama’s “phony theology,” and serial adulterer Newt Gingrich promotes himself as a defender of traditional marriage.
The Christian right is perceived to have a stranglehold on the Republican party, so Republican presidential candidates perceive a need to ingratiate themselves to it. There’s no denying conservative Christians are a force to contend with. Some polls this year showed that as many as 50 percent of Republicans who voted in the primaries described themselves as born-again evangelicals.
But how do you explain the fact that the only serious candidate who didn’t pander to the Christian right is the candidate who came out on top? Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney began the campaign as a Mormon, and he’s still a Mormon today. Throughout his campaign, he consistently garnered about 30 percent of the evangelical vote. By early May, he had the Republican presidential nomination sewn up, while his ultra-devout opponents were trying to figure out how to pay off their campaign debts.
The Christian right has for years made a lot of noise in American politics, most of it negative. Could it be that its bark is no longer translating into bites at the ballot box?
Obama seems to think so. Just before Romney locked up the nomination, the president issued the biggest dare in the history of post-war American politics. On national television, he announced that he now believes same-sex couples should have the legal right to marry. It was a statement, not an edict — marriage is a matter for states to decide individually. But it was unequivocal and has obvious symbolic power.
Given the cacophony of the primaries, you’d think the Republicans would have exploded in righteous fury. Same-sex marriage cuts to the heart of the “family values” agenda. A few backwater bigots did react with hate and damnation. But apart from tepidly affirming his support for traditional marriage, Romney has been conspicuously subdued. He and his strategists likely realize that a full-fledged election fight over same-sex marriage would distract attention away from Obama’s weak flank — the economy — and risk alienating young Republicans and independents who increasingly view the anti-gay posturing of the far right as yesterday’s crusade. On the other hand, if he sidesteps the issue, Romney runs the risk of alienating the aging but still formidable core of evangelical voters on whom he continues to pin much of his electoral hopes.
All in all, a shrewd move by the president. But this is bigger than tactics. Having tasted hope fleetingly in 2008, Americans who are weary of recession and interminable culture wars have been waiting for Obama to inspire them again. His stand on same-sex marriage is by no means a cure-all for America’s ills, but it is a badly needed tonic. On one level, it simply reflects what most Americans already believe. But, significantly, it also wrests the values agenda from the clutches of the Christian right. In effect, Obama is saying, “Let the Republicans worry about them; the rest of us are moving on.” And finally, the president’s move may restore some hope in politics itself, by showing that the politically astute thing to do can also be the morally correct thing.
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