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Back To The Future" For Social Conservatives?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Attention Republicans: An entire division of the party is faltering. Has anybody noticed?

You probably heard the news about Rush Limbaugh’s “pledge” to raise funds for Hillary (apparently some of the best and brightest missed both the radio show, AND the banner at his website that read “Keep Her In It So We Can Win It”). And maybe you saw Ann Coulter explaining on the Fox Newschannel last week how Mrs. Clinton is “more conservative” than John McCain.

But did you hear the news about the influential conservative who won’t be voting at all in this year’s presidential election? His choice to “not vote” could potentially signal hundreds of thousands of Americans to do likewise - - and this could be great news for the Democratic Party.

Dr. James Dobson, the most influential Evangelical Christian in America when it comes to politics and public policy matters, last week declared that if John McCain is the Republican Party’s nominee for President, then he simply won’t vote at all in the presidential race. This is a striking announcement from a man who has spent over a quarter of a century getting people to engage in the political process, and encouraging them to let their voices be heard.

Back in 1977 when Dr. Dobson first began his non-profit “Focus On The Family” organization, the American political landscape was radically different than it is today, especially as it regarded conservative Christian Americans. Those who would now be quickly identified as “social conservatives” by both pundits and candidates alike, were often ignored back in the day.

This was in no small part because the religious social conservatives of previous generations often chose themselves to ignore politics, and to simply not participate in such “secular” endeavors. In fact, for much of the last century, voting in elections was simply not a priority for many Conservative Christian Americans, and thus, they had very little influence over the direction of American politics.

But the 1970’s saw an awakening of this segment of the population. In the aftermath of the 60’s youth rebellion that challenged America’s cultural foundations, a handful of thoughtful Americans (many of them clergymen) began to wake-up. Their collective realization? If Conservative Christians abandon the main power structures of the culture, the culture quickly becomes something less that hospitable to Conservative Christians - - and thus, they should get informed, and vote. Pat Robertson was a part of this team. So was Jerry Falwell. And so was Dr. Dobson.

While this movement began to take hold among the American population generally, the American Presidents began to take notice. Without making an overt connection to religious communities, President Nixon recognized that there was a “silent majority” in America that rejected the rebellion of the 60’s, and wanted their government to affirm the nation’s historic, “traditional values.”

President Gerald Ford was perhaps even more observant of this “new” movement. While no social conservative himself (this didn’t much matter, given that he never had a chance to drive a legislative agenda during his brief time in office anyway), Ford nonetheless met with Conservative Christian leaders at the White House, and attended events like the National Religious Broadcasters’ Convention.

President Jimmy Carter harnessed the momentum of the “new voters” being produced by the “new movement,” and got many of them to vote for him in 1976. And he tried to keep these “new voters” in the Democratic fold during his re-election campaign of 1980.

But then there was Ronald Reagan. A former California Governor who was tutored in the philosophies of Barry Goldwater, Reagan rightly surmised that the social concerns among America’s Conservative Christians entailed plenty of common ground with the interests of “other” conservatives - - those primarily concerned about limited government and the nation’s economy, and those concerned about national defense issues. Reagan brought these three categories of voters together to form a “coalition,” and the Republican Party has existed with this arrangement ever since.

Now in the year 2008, after nearly thirty years of the “Reagan Coalition,“ the most influential leader among Conservative Christians won’t be casting a vote for President. I say this with such certainty, because McCain will most certainly be the Republican nominee, and Dobson is most certainly a man of his word.

And to be clear, Dobson isn’t recommending that anybody else should abstain from voting. But there will be plenty of Americans who follow in his footsteps, whether he recommends it or not.

After decades of great accomplishments (and advocating for public policy is only a part of what the Focus On The Family organization does), it’s sad to think that Dr. Dobson could, however inadvertently, lead Conservative Christians back to “not voting” - - a pattern of behavior from which he rescued them in the 1970’s. This could lead to an Obama presidency, or another four years of the Clintons in the White House.

And what if McCain wins the presidency without the Conservative Christian Vote? Surely the social conservative movement would lose influence in such a scenario.

Let’s stay engaged. Let’s vote. Let’s not go back to the 1970’s.

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