Dr. James Dobson’s recent announcement that leaders of the religious right might support a third party candidate – or run one of their own – if the pro-choice Rudy Giuliani were the 2008 Republican presidential nominee sent ominous ripples throughout GOP circles. In no small part, that’s because the religious right has become an important part of the Republican coalition, and it’s difficult (if not impossible) for a Republican to win without the support of that group.
In the event of a walkout by the religious right, the damage to the Republican Party in 2008 is as clear as the harm the country as a whole would suffer if Hillary Clinton were given the keys to The White House. Less obvious – but no less real -- are the repercussions to the religious right itself should its leaders, through a well-intentioned, principled but ill-advised strategy, ensure the election of Senator Clinton.
Such a result would create years of bitterness and division within the conservative movement. The mere mention of a boycott alienates those who are otherwise the religious right’s natural allies – supportive of socially conservative policies and sympathetic to the aims of people of faith. In fact, one email correspondent who professed “evangelical roots” and “great admiration” for religious right leaders Dr. James Dobson and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins wrote me last week:
I am angry at [Dr. Dobson and Mr. Perkins] for trying to essentially scare me into voting in a particular way.
What Dr. Dobson has done is to try to influence my vote not by offering open support for an electable pro-life candidate but by threatening me with the specter of virtually handing the election to Hillary Clinton unless I, as a Republican, vote to nominate an avowedly pro-life candidate. This is flat out bullying of the religious right in the name of "principle."
Certainly, neither of these honorable, patriotic men means to elicit such sentiments. But similar opinions are being voiced in many conservative circles, and they threaten to undermine the credibility and good-will to which the religious right is entitled after years of hard work and committed leadership.
Indeed, it’s no secret that some in the GOP itself, including politicians like former Senator John Danforth and former Governor Christine Todd Whitman, have deplored the influence of members of the religious right. They’ve frequently and vocally urged the GOP both to seek a governing coalition less reliant on religious conservatives and to adopt a platform that largely ignores (or even opposes) their priorities.
If Rudy Giuliani were to become the GOP’s 2008 nominee and then somehow prevailed through successful overtures to independents, the wisdom of such counsel would appear to be vindicated. Even if Giuliani in truth owed his election to concerns about a Hillary Clinton presidency, the religious right’s power in the Republican Party – and, more importantly, its capacity to influence public policy for the good – would be incalculably damaged for years to come.
In short, if the religious right decided to support a third candidate, it would become the biggest loser in a Giuliani-Clinton contest, whatever the outcome. Even so, it is tempting for those opposed to Giuliani’s pro-choice stance to speculate that a Hillary Clinton presidency might shock the country into greater receptivity to policies espoused by people of faith. But it’s worth remembering that similar hopes, coupled with discontent with the presidency of George H.W. Bush, inspired some to vote for Ross Perot in 1992. As a result, America endured eight years of a Clinton presidency – and set Hillary Clinton on the path she’s pursuing now.
Ever since people of faith became politically active in the 1980’s, those who oppose their policy goals have consistently tried to portray them as rigid, judgmental and out of the mainstream. The threat of a boycott plays into their adversaries’ hands, allowing them to claim that all the least flattering stereotypes about the religious right have been confirmed.
Indeed, the disheartening truth is that many Americans across the political spectrum would like nothing more than the political marginalization of people of faith. So as the leaders of the religious right determine what conscience requires, those of us who admire their principle and convictions – and support many of their objectives – can only hope that they will not choose a course that will harm a very worthy movement for years to come.