By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Doing some reporting on how the religious right is greeting the election of Michael Steele—who's been portrayed as squishy on some social issues—as Republican Party chairman, I called Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, perhaps the most influential Christian conservative activist in Washington.
I was surprised by how critical he has become of the Republican Party and that he extended qualified compliments to the Obama administration. I'm used to hearing such talk from moderate evangelicals like Rev. Joel Hunter, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference's Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, or former National Association of Evangelicals lobbyist Richard Cizik, but not from a proud right winger like Perkins.
Here's our interview:
Some Christian conservatives portrayed Michael Steele as a social moderate during the RNC chairman's race. So, how do they greet his election?
With caution. He's made statements that are of concern regarding the efforts to protect marriage by amending the constitution. He made some comments that are less than encouraging about what happened in California [where voters recently reversed a court's decision to legalize gay marriage]. The Republican Party platform has the strongest language ever [on marriage and abortion]. So, if he's supportive of that platform, he'll be fine.
Does Steele need to proactively reach out to his party's social conservative base?
It's a good way to put it. Given the present standing of the Republican Party among social conservatives, the bridge building is going to have to be from the party out. Social conservatives are not going to be banging the door down to establish a relationship with the GOP. The party leadership is going to have to show a good-faith effort.
That sounds like a shift from even a few years ago, when religious conservatives were working closely with Republicans on judges, new abortion restrictions, and reelecting George W. Bush.
The change is that social conservatives are still committed to the issues and still involved in the political process, but don't see the GOP as the only means to affect things in this culture. And to the degree that the party is not moving with them, they are not going to move with it. There is not the strong connection to the Republican Party that there once was. I'm more representative of the younger generation and I don't have as strong allegiance to the Republican Party. And to the degree that they try to avoid the values issues and put them at the back of the bus, I don't have a lot of desire to mess around with that.
At the same time, Democrats have been making overtures to social conservatives.
I'm not saying I'm taking everything at face value, but the Obama administration is trying to have a conversation about faith-based initiatives. It's evidence that they see a need to reach social conservatives. Whether they do it is another question, but it's a positive development.
It's quite clear that the Republicans in the last few years have tried to move away from those issues and deemphasize those issues. You saw it in the presidential election, with more emphasis on religion and its role in the public square more from the Democratic Party than from the Republicans. I'm not saying it's genuine from the Democrats. It's yet to be seen. Obama has overturned the Mexico City Policy, a clearly pro-abortion move. But the Republicans can't just assume that because social conservatives are not supportive of Democrats means they'll support Republicans.
Was there an event or series of events that soured the relationship between social conservatives and the Republican Party?
It is something that happened after 2004, when there was a great emphasis by the Republicans and the president on the need to protect marriage. It was used to secure a second term for President Bush and to expand Republican control of Congress. And after the election, the issue was basically dropped.
That, combined with corruption that distracted the Republican Party, Mark Foley—it all added up to where people began to scratch their heads and say, "This is not the party that is really reflecting our values."