Whither the Conservative Culture War?

If you haven't already bookmarked Sarah Posner's terrific new feature here at The American Prospect Online, The FundamentaList, you might have missed it last week when the Republican candidates went deep into the heart of their base, coming before a group of conservative Christians for the Values Voter Debate. They were quizzed about abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and a host of other culture war issues by such old-line radical right luminaries as Phyllis Schlafly, Paul Weyrich, and Don Wildmon, and for sheer entertainment value, it beat any of the debates held on either side this year. Not only did the stage include four empty podiums for the candidates who by coincidence had scheduling conflicts that prevented them from attending, but the program included people asking the empty podiums questions, followed by moments of heavily symbolic silence.

The reason you probably didn’t hear about the Values Voter Debate was the fact that those four missing candidates just happen to be the leaders in the Republican field -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Fred Thompson. The candidates may want the conservative Christian vote, but clearly not bad enough to be seen consorting with their party’s culture war wing. That nearly all of the men with a chance to become the Republican nominee for president stayed away tells us a lot about where the GOP finds itself today, and why its troubles are so profound.

But avoiding the Values Voter Debate was probably a wise choice. Had Giuliani, Romney, McCain and Thompson gone, they might have been asked later on how they felt about the fact that the event kicked off with a little bit of tuneful America-bashing, delivered by a gospel choir. It was "God Bless America; with the lyrics changed. Here’s the chorus:

Why should God bless America?
She’s forgotten he exists
And has turned her back
On everything that made her what she is.
Why should God stand beside her
Through the night with the light from his hand?
God have mercy on America
Forgive her sin and heal our land

It’s enough to make you wonder why progressives have their patriotism questioned whenever they criticize the foreign policy of a particular administration, but conservatives can get away with singing that America itself is so depraved and perverted as to be unworthy of grace from above. You will not be shocked to learn that none of the candidates who did attend -- Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, John Cox, and Alan Keyes (yes, he’s back, and offering the same electrifying combination of eloquence and outright lunacy that has always made him so entertaining) -- condemned "Why Should God Bless America," or much else that audience and those like them believe and do. The night’s big winner was Huckabee, himself an ordained Baptist minister who has called what we’re doing in the Middle East a "theological war," warming the hearts of both Christians and Islamists. Huckabee absolutely killed among the Values Voters, obliterating his opponents in the post-debate straw poll with 63 percent of the vote. The closest competitor was Ron Paul, who got 12 percent (interestingly enough, Brownback, who was once seen as the candidate of the Christian right, got only 5 percent).

It’s true that each of the no-shows is busily hopping around his unique set of landmines when it comes to the GOP’s own sectarian militia, whether it’s past mercenary work for baby-killers (Thompson), membership in a satanic cult (Romney), offending God himself with blasphemous campaign finance reform (McCain), or a history of comfort with sodomites (Giuliani). They’ve all been working to assure even the craziest in their party that whatever else you might think of them, they are proud members of Team Jesus. The latest uncomfortable attempt came from McCain, who despite calling himself an Episcopalian for his entire career, announced to much puzzlement that he is now a Baptist. Out with the mainline Protestants, in with the born-again. When asked about the seemingly sudden switch, McCain said, "The most important thing is that I am a Christian." In addition to his well-publicized commencement speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, McCain has also kissed the ring of John Hagee, a fundamentalist pastor who believes that America must wage war on Iran to hasten the coming of Armageddon (Sara Posner explored Hagee’s views and influence in the Prospect here).

When it comes to this complicated dance, the one with the most to gain and the most to lose is Giuliani. For many months, most commentators (myself included) have argued that his differences with the religious right are so profound that it makes his winning the GOP nomination all but impossible. Giuliani has attempted to thread this particular needle with a combination of fuzzifying statements on the hot-button issues ("I hate abortion!") and the hope that the war on Islam -- oops! -- the war on terror (or as he now calls it, "The Terrorists’ War On Us") is not just more important than the culture war, but has actually become the most important part of the culture war. And though it’s far too early to know for sure, he might actually be right.

The conservative side of the culture war, one must understand, is not about particular issues. It’s about a worldview that divides Us and Them, though Them is a diverse group. Them can be gays, or feminists, or coastal elites, but the culture war enemy can also be the dark-skinned horde from overseas -- which is how Giuliani hopes conservatives will think of it. By arguing that every issue, no matter how seemingly remote, is about our clash of civilizations with radical Islam, Rudy poses himself as the commander in chief of the conservative culture war army. Whatever calculation and artifice goes into this argument, this much is true: If you want somebody who can’t wait to launch some more wars, who thinks that civil liberties are for sissies, who would personally torture suspects if he could, Rudy Giuliani is absolutely, positively your boy.

But has recent history given conservatives any pause about these matters? Just the opposite. One might think that no one could possibly fetishize "toughness" more than George W. Bush. But Bush has left conservatives with aching hearts. He said all the right things, in all the right ways -- smoke 'em out, git 'em runnin', dead or alive, bring 'em on -- and when he talked about "bringing justice to our enemies," his eyes gleamed with a feverish bloodlust. But six years after 9/11, he hasn’t brought the story to its satisfying conclusion, where the good guys triumph in a final righteous spasm of violent vengeance. He hasn’t held aloft the severed head of Osama bin Laden. His war goes on and on, and even its most fervent advocates have downgraded their ambitions from triumph over evil to the pathetically puny goal of creating a reasonably stable government in Iraq, guaranteeing that no matter when the war ends, it will hardly be with a bang. You may have noticed that the word "victory," so long invoked, has become scarce in conservatives’ statements about Iraq.

So Giuliani, seeking to redeem Bush’s failures, avoids talking about Iraq at all costs, as though it were but a minor detail. Instead, he offers a national security philosophy that so far sounds pretty much like the Bush Doctrine, but without all the thoughtfulness and restraint.

There are certainly many in the Republican Party for whom abortion and homosexuality exert such a powerful hold over every waking thought that they would never consider supporting Giuliani. But his bet is that he can win them over with visions of cluster bombs dancing in their heads. And maybe he can.

Giuliani and his fellow candidates may have skipped out on the Values Voter Debate, but not to worry -- they’ll have another chance. Next month, the Family Research Council will be holding its Values Voter Summit, one more opportunity for them to genuflect before the leaders of the radical Christian right and kneel at the altar of the endless culture war. Romney and McCain have already signed up.

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