Will God Save the Democrats?

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>Democrats may be thanking God for values voters and wishing them luck in making moral reform an "integral part" of the Republican agenda. Two years ago a Pew Forum survey found "a small but significant increase" in public discomfort with aggressively religious candidates:  "Today (in 2008) 46% say they are uncomfortable when politicians talk about how religious they are, up from 40% in 2004."  Pew noted that the "increase in negative sentiment about religion and politics was much more apparent among Republicans than among Democrats," and McCain backers were significantly more uncomfortable with candidates' religiosity than Bush backers.  

I don't mean to read too much into this finding, since it may simply have reflected Bush fatigue as well as conservative evangelical mistrust of McCain. Besides, given the breathtaking pace of political and cultural change, when we talk about public attitudes two years ago, we might as well be talking in dog years. Still, extreme social conservatives do not represent the majority, or, I suspect, the future.  

They are losing their battle against gay rights, especially among younger people, (and are increasingly marginalized in their view of homosexuality as sinful, or a gateway to bestiality).  Support for equal marriage is steadily increasing (according to a recent CNN poll, it's reached a majority). Fifty-seven percent of Americans favor repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Conservatives may be less out of touch on other social issues. The public seems divided on the subject of stem cell research -- but an aging populace and younger people stricken with now incurable diseases, as well as relatives of the ill and elderly, seem unlikely to favor restrictions on lifesaving medical research for long. And there is strong public support for a right to die, obscured by last year's hysteria about imaginary "death panels." (As big government conservatives might recall, congressional intervention in the decision to take Terry Schiavo off life support was opposed by about 70 percent of the public.) Support for reproductive choice has eroded and opponents have succeeded in limiting access to abortion for low-income women, but I suspect that the gains of anti-abortion activists would be reversed quickly if abortion were legally prohibited or became generally unavailable. I dare the extremists to try prohibiting contraception; they might as well continue Christine O'Donnell's campaign against masturbation.

Of course, when the electorate is primarily concerned about the economy, Republicans are unlikely to promote an extremist moral reform agenda. (O'Donnell has already retreated from her own whacky abstinence crusade.) But voters should take seriously the threat posed to core individual freedoms by this increasingly extreme party of alleged freedom fighters. And Democrats might hope that Values Voters' presidential straw poll winner Mike Pence keeps his promise to "not remain silent while great moral values are being waged."

Social conservatives typically describe their quest for religious power quite deceptively as demands for religious rights (as debates over school prayer have demonstrated). So, not surprisingly, Pence framed his crusade to codify conservative Christian sexual and social beliefs as a quest for "religious liberty." A diverse population of voters may disagree.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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