As the 2014 election season gears up—and various politicians start floating the possibility of a 2016 presidential run—the question of what Republicans need to do about the religious right is only getting more serious. It’s become apparent that the religious right is an electoral albatross for Republicans. The invention of the “Tea Party” reflected this desire to bamboozle the press into forgetting that the Republican Party is controlled by a bunch of right-wing Christians, by floating this narrative that this new insurgence of conservative energy was somehow more about economic conservatism than social conservatism.
That narrative has basically collapsed in the face of overwhelming evidence that the Tea Party’s main impact is encouraging Republican primary voters to back even more embarrassingly Bible-thumping candidates than usual, from Ted Cruz to Christine O’Donnell. It’s impossible to ignore that the biggest result of the supposed Tea Party revolution has been to refocus Republican energies on attacking abortion rights and expanding the war on women to include attacks on previously non-controversial issues, such as insurance coverage of birth control and maternity care. Turns out the “Tea Party” was the same old religious right people know and loathe.
The religious right is increasingly a problem for the Republican Party. But it’s not one they can get rid of without creating even more problems for themselves.
The 2012 election really demonstrated how much the religious right hurts Republicans in general elections. The various “rape philosophers” who lost elections after making offensive remarks about rape victims were, by and large, expressing ideas about female sexuality and sexual violence they got by being stalwart warriors for the religious right. Todd Akin’s claim that “legitimate rape” didn’t result in pregnancy is a fairy tale told by Christian conservatives to convince themselves that exceptions in their preferred abortion bans for rape are unnecessary.Richard Mourdock’s claim that rape happens because it’s God’s plan was more of the same.
But this was a continuation of the trend of candidates in competitive elections losing because they say wacky things they learned as Christian conservatives. Sharron Angle’s weird religiosity— including a similar tendency to describe rape as a blessing in disguise—led to her defeat in a previously competitive 2010 election against Harry Reid. (She beat out a more moderate Republican in the primary, in part because of the Tea Party insurgency.) Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell tanked her election after talking about Christian right obsessions like witchcraft and sexual “purity.” The trend continued right through 2013 when Ken Cuccinelli lost his bid to be governor of Virginia because of his hostility to reproductive rights and his outdated campaign to recriminalize sodomy in Virginia.
This isn’t a problem in conservative districts where ficus trees could win as long as they were the official Republican nominees, but as these examples show, the religious right severely limits the Republicans’ ability to expand beyond that, especially when it comes to bigger elections with a broader base of voters—like the presidential election. Because of that, it seems the smart thing to do would be to quit running the Todd Akins and Ken Cuccinellis and go for candidates who don’t have the stench of misogynistic fundamentalism about them.
But early 2014 evidence shows that Republicans have decided to keep on keeping on with the Jesus lunacy. The official Republican response to the State of the Union address was given by Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Most of her speech was composed of empty platitudes without even a whiff of what kind of policies Republicans would offer instead, with one exception: abortion. Even though Obama hadn’t mentioned it in his speech, McMorris Rodgers wielded her young son with Down’s syndrome as evidence for belief that abortion is never acceptable. The message was clear. Republicans not only refuse to give up on the religious right—they’re keeping the religious right and its obsessions front and center.
It seems stupid, but if you think about it, what other choice do they have? As the McMorris Rodgers speech indicated, there’s a dearth of ideas outside of waging war on women in the current Republican Party. Right now, Republicans are primarily defined by what they’re against and they don’t seem to be for much of anything: Against minimum wage rises, against healthcare reform, against government interventions to improve the economy, against everything Obama does no matter what ( including taking pictures of his dog), against food stamps, against against against. They may occasionally make gestures toward the hint of an idea that they might want to replace the policies they’re against with some other policies, but no one really believes this. House Republicans spend more time passing pointless repeal bills of the ACA than they do passing bills that do anything at all.
Say what you will about the religious right, at least they are for something. Sure, what they’re for is eradicating safe abortion, making contraception hard to get, aggressively punishing gay people for the crime of existing, injecting creationism into schools, redirecting tax money toward their pet causes, and stoking anti-Muslim sentiment, but at least they have a mission. The larger Republican agenda of getting out of the way so that capitalist forces can squeeze as much wealth as they can from 99% of the population to enrich 1% of the population is never going to be an agenda people can support—well, people besides billionaires, that is—but a lot of people are active members of the religious right and are willing to vote and fundraise and agitate on these fronts.
Without the religious right, the Republicans would be reduced to saying, “Vote for us. For reasons. Which we can’t really explain.” In other words, the rest of Cathy McMorris Rodgers' speech. The parts that weren’t about pandering to the religious right, that is.
This is the paradox of the modern Republican Party: In order to get the votes of the kind of people who would support them, they have to turn everyone else off. Sure, some people who currently vote for Democrats or refuse to vote at all would decamp to the Republican side if Republicans dropped the religious right, but the number of voters they have to gain from this is fewer than the number they have to lose if the religious right decides to stop voting altogether.
So next time you wonder why they keep running all these fools who can’t stop saying nutty stuff about Jesus and controlling other people’s sex lives, just remember: Those nutty Christian fundies are the only loyal votes they have left. If they threw them out, they might be standing around with a big bag of nothing.