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The passion of the Right

With 25 million voters saying 'moral values' were the most important issues in this year's election, President Bush is confronted with a difficult question in his second term: Cater to the cultural conservatives who got him re-elected, or follow Ronald Reagan's example by seeking common ground?

There is a battle raging for leadership of this country’s cultural Right. The spoils of that battle are the votes of millions of religious conservatives who voted for President Bush. But who will command this treasure of national power? President Bush, competitors for the succession like Republican Senate Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, or the leaders of the groups themselves?

Will the president use his capital with this group, as he promised after victory? Will Senator Frist win the cultural Right’s backing for 2008 by moving to dump Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector as chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee? Or will the leaders of the cultural Right themselves start dictating who they will accept as the new secretary of state?

25 million voters listed “moral values” as their primary political concern. Eleven states voted to reject the notion of same-sex marriage. A majority of Roman Catholics voted for President Bush while 4 million Christian conservatives— Evangelicals— entered the political process. And 44 percent of Hispanics voted for Bush, the precise percentage who oppose abortion rights.  A look at the post-election map shows a sea of red. The Democrats lost not just the South, but also the border states of Missouri, West Virginia, Southern Ohio— anywhere that people speak even with the slightest southern accent or think of themselves a “country” stayed with Bush.

Let’s go back:

  • The “Passion of the Christ” made $370 million domestically. The critics worried about the film stirring ethnic dissension. They missed the passion of those who saw, up their screen, the son of God in all his love for man.
  • The uproar over Janet Jackson’s notorious half-time striptease may cost CBS over a half-a-million dollars in fines. Earlier this November, many ABC stations said they were wondered of the same FCC wrath and opted out of showing an unedited version of “Saving Private Ryan” with its real-life battlefield horror and beached use of the “f-word” on Veterans day.
  • Many think the country’s reaction to scenes of gay couples getting married on the steps of San Francisco city hall… and a Massachusetts court’s one-vote majority for gay marriage brought out more of the Right.

All this is blasting at the moral sensitivity of a country where almost half the people maintain a fundamentalist belief in the Bible, including a literal reading of Genesis.

Nor is America alone.

As we look around the world, we see dreadful civil strife, ethnic warfare, religious division of the most appalling kind. A post-modern world that sounds a lot like the world we look back on as pre-modern.

We live in an uneasy time for most Americans— a lot of immigration, people carrying two jobs (the second one for $7 an hour). There’s not enough time for kids, wives, and husbands. There’s terrorism, about which we know little of the source, the motive, or the power. It’s a real life “fear factor.”

In this turbulent sea, people cling to any preserver they believe will float.

So what do the political parties do? They look for votes— from the cultural Right and from those who fear it. To recruit and maintain a strongest possible base of support, they keep it simple. They inspect their troops for any sign of deviation, especially on those cultural issues that drive up their base and fill their war chests. They enforce the new partition that makes one party pro-choice, the other pro-life… choosing the one issue for which there is the least possibility for negotiation and agreement— the least common ground of values.

But the parties still have options. The culture war may be the new kid on the political block, but is not the only game in town. Not yet, at least.

Will President Bush govern from the cultural Right, or will he be like Ronald Reagan in his second term? He has said he wants to govern and unite those who agree with him. How will that work with issues like Social Security reform? Or simplifying the federal tax system? How about the deficit?

The Democrats can do the same from their end of the spectrum. Instead of competing with the Republicans for the votes of the cultural Right, they can take up their traditional fight for middle and lower income families on the same line the president has decided to fight: Social Security, taxes, and federal spending.

So the big question of 2004 will lead to the big answer of 2005: Will both jump to the new tune of cultural conservatism— at home and abroad, especially in the Mideast— or will they refocus on the secular work of mending and strengthening man-made institutions like social security, Medicare, and the progressing income tax?

An interesting question and a powerful answer.