“Feeding a monster who has the party by its tail”

The religious right's agenda on abortion and gay marriage could tear apart the GOP.

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A mood of elation permeated the ranks of evangelical Christians in the United States Thursday as it became clear that the election marked a watershed moment for their chances of implementing a conservative moral agenda — above all on the issues of abortion and gay marriage.

Buoyed by exit poll results suggesting that moral issues had weighed on voters’ minds even more than terrorism, activists vowed to use their victory to push the second Bush administration to ban same-sex unions at a federal level and to move the Supreme Court to the right. “I think it’s quite possible this could be a turning point,” said Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Group, a lobbying organization.

“We’re seeing from the exit polls that conservative Christian voters turned out in record numbers … so we certainly will be pressing for action on key items of our agenda, and we will not be shy about claiming that our influence was significant in the outcome of the election.”

In a post-election memo obtained by the New York Times, Richard Viguerie, a right-wing direct-mailing campaigner, issued a warning to the Republican Party. “Make no mistake — conservative Christians and ‘values voters’ won this election for George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress,” he wrote.

“It’s crucial that the Republican leadership not forget this — as much as some will try … Liberals, many in the media and inside the Republican Party, are urging the president to ‘unite’ the country by discarding the allies that earned him another four years.”

Morality turned out to be a key motivator in an election apparently dominated by the Iraq war, terrorism and the economy. According to exit polls, 20 percent of voters put moral issues at the top of their list — more than any other issue — and 80 percent of them were Bush supporters.

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“George Bush speaks our language of faith, and John Kerry doesn’t,” said Carrie Earll, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family, an influential conservative group. “Right now, we live in a time when the economy, Iraq and the war on terror are big topics — so the fact that social and moral values took precedence over those, even in wartime, is an indication that this is fundamental to who we are as a people.”

A decisive energizing factor appears to have been measures banning same-sex marriage, which passed in all 11 states where they were on the ballot. Campaigners in Ohio claimed to have registered tens of thousands of new voters intent on supporting a ban, implying that voting for Bush might have been almost an afterthought for some.

“That certainly galvanized the church,” said Earll. “The fact that there was a presidential election was just another factor. People would have gone to the polls to vote on the marriage amendment whoever was on the ballot for president.”

With several Supreme Court justices likely to retire, the victory also leaves anti-abortion campaigners more hopeful than ever that the complexion of the court could be shifted to eradicate the current tenuous majority in support of Roe vs. Wade, which reaffirms abortion as a constitutionally protected right. Holding open that possibility was a central part of the Bush campaign’s effort to energize its Christian conservative base and reach the millions of evangelicals who stayed home on Election Day in 2000.

But a leading moderate Republican told the Guardian yesterday the tactic could prove self-destructive if pushed further. “If Bush deliberately or inadvertently appoints enough judges to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the worst-case scenario is that it’s the beginning of the end of the Republican Party,” said Jennifer Blei Stockman, co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice. “It wouldn’t be long before the outrage would spill into the voting booth, and it would only be a matter of time before the Democratic Party ascends to power that will last for a long time.”

In pandering to evangelical conservatives, Stockman said, Republican strategists had “been feeding a monster who now has the party by its tail.” At least 75 percent of Bush voters do not consider themselves evangelicals, she said. “The keynote speakers at the Republican Convention were all ‘pro-choice’ moderates, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Rudy Giuliani to [New York Gov.] George Pataki. Was that just a masquerade or was something of substance communicated?”

Conservative Republicans argue that talk of an imminent reversal of Roe vs. Wade is fearmongering, though they are far from reticent themselves in using lurid and shocking campaign messages.

“On the immediate front, let’s ban partial-birth abortion,” said Earll, referring to the late-termination practice to which Bush has declared himself opposed. “Right now, we have a Supreme Court that says it’s a constitutional right to stab a nearly born infant in the back of the head and suck its brains out.”

American views on abortion, however, may be less sharply divided than the vocal campaigners for each side make out, said Corwin Smidt, a professor of Christianity and politics at Calvin College in Michigan. “The percentage of Americans who want total free choice has been going down, but there has been no real increase in the percentage of people who want to eliminate all abortion,” he said.

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