The religious right dance in NYC

Published September 1, 2004 1:24AM (EDT)

During a break in the action at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, the house band broke into a medley of Motown songs. A Pennsylvania delegate -- a male Pennsylvania delegate -- reached out a hand and urged Sen. Rick Santorum to dance. "Come on, Rick," he said, "Why don't you loosen up?"

It was a joke but the gay-bashing Senator from Pennsylvania wasn't taking any chances. He declined the dance, then talked with Salon about the convention.

Santorum said he's not unhappy that moderate Republicans like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have largely displaced social conservatives from the convention stage. "So far, I haven't disagreed with anything I've heard," Santorum said.

But the issue with social conservatives isn't what's being said on the stage -- it's what's not being said. Social issues weren't mentioned at all Monday. On Tuesday, a few speakers -- Sens. Sam Brownback and Elizabeth Dole, among them -- talked of the issues important to the religious right but did so in the least inflammatory language possible. We didn't hear the word "abortion" but the "culture of life" came up a lot.

A top official with one religious right group acknowledged to Salon Tuesday afternoon that the convention had so far failed to energize evangelical Christians. However, she said that they understand -- just as anti-war Democrats understand -- that it's sometimes better to go along to get along during an election year.

The difference, of course, is that the left-wing, anti-war Democrats don't control the Democratic Party in the same way that the religious right controls the Republican Party. To the extent that the Democrats squelched anti-war talk in Boston, their efforts reflected the views of their candidate. When Republicans keep the religious right off the stage in New York, they obscure the political agenda the President and his congressional allies have pursued.

The religious right understands that -- words from the stage notwithstanding -- the Republican Party is with them in both practice and in the hard-right platform it has adopted. "I support the entire Republican platform," Santorum said Tuesday night. They also understand that their support may be better left either un- or understated.

Santorum, who once equated homosexuality with bestiality, and gay marriage with the attacks of Sept. 11, proceeded to spin the Republican platform -- and, particularly, its call for a ban on any form of legal recognition for gay relationships -- in a way that would have made a moderate proud. "I support traditional marriage, marriage between a man and a woman," he said. "I don't oppose gay marriage or any other kind of marriage. I support keeping the definition which has been in place for 200-plus years, and I support letting the people have the opportunity to define it, not the courts. There's nothing radical about that at all."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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