Social Conservatives Still Control the GOP

Despite worries that their focus on abortion and gay marriage is a liability for Republicans, they're as well-organized, vigilant, and powerful as ever.

Marco Rubio and Ralph Reed (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Ever since Republicans got clobbered in the last election, some have suggested they dial back some of their hard stances in the culture war. The College Republicans, for example, commissioned a study that concluded that young voters see the party as fusty and old-fashioned, and urged it to get with the times on issues such as gay marriage. America may not be keen on free love and abortion on demand, but neither are voters clamoring for a party that wants to restrict access to contraception and keep women out of the work force.

And yet Republican politicians do not seem to have gotten the message. On Wednesday, for example, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill out of committee to ban almost all abortions after 20 weeks.* The religious conservative faction, with its agenda of stopping gay marriage and banning abortion under all circumstances, appears as strong as ever.

For proof, you needed only pay a visit this week to a conference put on by the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Ironically, or defiantly, titled the "Road to Majority Conference," it attracted a star-studded line-up of GOP pols, from potential presidential candidates Rand Paul and Marco Rubio to rabble-rousers like Donald Trump and Sarah Palin. The Faith and Freedom Coalition is headed by Ralph Reed, who you may remember from his glory days with the Christian Coalition in the 1990s or the Abramoff scandal of the last decade; he was last seen, in 2012, assuring the evangelicals that their hard work was going to win the election for Mitt Romney. The group claims to have sent 23 million pieces of campaign mail last year.

Nonetheless, there was little anguish or self-doubt at this week's gathering. "Despite the disappointment of 2012, we're very optimistic about the future," FFC's executive director, Gary Marx, told the catered luncheon that opened the three-day conference. "We win elections when we emphasize pro-freedom, pro-family messages based on our founding principles. We lose when candidates fail to articulate that message."

If this was meant to imply that Romney lost because social conservatives weren't enthusiastic enough about him, there's little evidence that's the case. According to exit polls, white born-again Christians were 26 percent of the electorate in 2012 and 78 percent of them voted for Romney; in 2008, they were also 26 percent of the electorate, and 74 percent of them voted for John McCain. In 2004, George W. Bush won reelection with 78 percent of their vote, when they made up a slightly smaller portion of the electorate. The problem is not that evangelicals' political participation or devotion to the GOP is declining. It's that the gap between what they believe and what everyone else does is growing wider.

How the party moves forward will depend above all on whom it nominates in the next presidential election, so the speeches by Paul and Rubio were especially consequential. That both felt compelled to address the group and pander to its narrow interests was evidence of social conservatives' continuing intraparty clout: The Christian right has been so well organized for so long that other conservative factions, such as libertarians or the Tea Party, pose little threat to its dominance.

Both Paul and Rubio talked about the importance of protecting the unborn; neither mentioned gay marriage. But both also sought to extend the conservative agenda in new directions -- a sign that each would, as a presidential contender, seek to push his party's base out of its comfort zone.

For Paul, the issue is peace. "As Christians, we need to be wary of this doctrine of preemptive war," he said. He spoke at length about the persecution of Christians in various non-democratic regimes, and urged the revocation of U.S. aid to countries such as Egypt. Paul is not as strict an isolationist as his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, but nonetheless believes in a less aggressive foreign policy, a less intrusive security state, and less military spending.

Rubio's speech served as an implicit rebuttal of Paul. He argued that the U.S. must be prepared to intervene abroad. "Radical Islam threatens the peace and safety of the world," he said. "If America does not step up, who will?"

And yet Rubio is also working to take the GOP in a new direction, by aggressively pushing for bipartisan immigration reform. Though many conservative Christians support this idea, there is a vocal segment of the Republican base that does not. "The essence of our immigration policy is compassion," Rubio told the conference.

Social conservatives will continue to wield major power in the Republican Party by their sheer numbers and their dogged activism. After the luncheon, attendees grabbed packets and went to Capitol Hill to lobby their hometown representatives -- the type of very visible engagement that guarantees their voices will continue to be heard. The packets included directions to the offices of 45 senators and 234 members of Congress, and a set of talking points on important issues. One read, "We vehemently oppose amnesty and guaranteed paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants"; another, "Public polling overstates the support for same-sex marriage."

But if social conservatives are to be a constructive force as the party moves forward, their agenda must expand beyond the cramped and unpopular confines of anti-abortion absolutism and enforcing "traditional" marriage. Party leaders are trying to push them toward new priorities; their fortunes, and the party's, will hinge on whether they will succeed.

* Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the bill would ban all abortions after 20 weeks. We regret the error.