By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Antitax crusader and GOP megastrategist Grover Norquist recently joined a group of religious conservative leaders for a strategy session about the "future of the Christian vote." Norquist, whose more libertarian vision for a "leave us alone" conservative coalition jars with social conservative goals like banning same-sex marriage, reportedly administered some pretty tough love to those in attendance.
I caught up with Norquist yesterday and asked him if religious conservatives have a place in the GOP's revival, which conservative Christian leaders most irk him, and how a "leave us alone" party could push for outlawing abortion and gay marriage. Excerpts:
Where do religious conservatives fit in the attempted revival of the GOP?
The center-right is a "leave us alone" coalition. If you look at why people are in the room, why people vote, why people get involved in politics, everybody in the center-right is there because on the issue that moves their vote, they want to be left alone. Taxpayers: "Leave my money alone." Gun owners: "Leave my guns alone." Home-schoolers: "Leave my kids alone." All the various communities of faith—evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Mormons—the thing that matters to them is to be able to practice their faith and raise their kids. So the religious right, in terms of votes cast, it's a defensive. But they have leaders sometimes who announce that they want to make everybody be one religion or make everybody think one way. My voters don't want their taxes raised. They might want tax cuts, but they vote in self-protection against tax increases. If I go to a politician and say, " If you don't abolish the death tax tomorrow, all the tax voters will vote against you," that's just crazy. It would be good policy, and it would please many people. But I don't control my voters.
Are you suggesting that some conservative Christian leaders do that?
Some religious right leaders do that, acting as if everybody of their faith persuasion votes on their command, which is insulting, not true, and ridiculous. They shouldn't talk like that. There are two ways in which people are guilty of that. One is they actually do say something like that. Two is they don't say that but that's what they're heard to say. More often it's the second one, where somebody implies that everybody agrees with me.
Give an example.
James Dobson made some comment that 40 percent of the votes for George W. Bush in 2004 came from evangelical Protestants, therefore you owe the presidency to us and you need to do what we want. It's missing why they voted for Bush. They didn't vote for him because they're evangelical Protestants. They voted for Bush because they wanted to be left alone in their faith and family commitments, which are evangelical Protestant. But the orthodox Jews and the Muslims who voted for Bush voted for the same reason, so you can't go to Bush and say, "Govern as a Baptist." If what you want is to be able to raise your kids to be orthodox, Catholic, or Greek Orthodox, that's nonthreatening to the gay atheist who lives in New York. But if he or she thinks that your plans are to come poke her or him and tell them what to do, then you've got yourself an enemy who and votes against you.
Why is a guy who wants to go to church all day in a room with a guy who wants to make money all day and the guy who wants to fire guns all day? What is it we have in common? We all want to be left alone in the zone that is most important in our lives. And if you don't understand why people are in the room, you don't understand how you can piss off people who should be your friend.
Have social conservatives alienated other parts of the conservative coalition?
In the 1980s, conservatives looked at polling data, and 70 percent of the people in the country were for prayer in school. And they introduced bills in Congress and constitutional amendments to legalize prayer in school. But most people who are for prayer in school think everybody else is for prayer in school, and therefore it's not really a threatening issue. But there's a strong contingent who fear prayer in school because they're pretty sure the prayer won't be one they like. Some of these people may be antireligious, but some are other religious people who don't get enough votes to be in charge of writing the prayers: Jews, the Amish, religious minorities. They hate prayer in school. So even though 70 percent tell you that they're for prayer in school, 3 percent of the people in the room will say, "I hate you forever." On Election Day, those 3 percent remember what you did, and you just lost votes on a 70 percent issue, as impossible as that sounds.
When you go from prayer in school to school choice, where you can send your kid to a school with exactly the kind of prayer you want—or no prayer at all—then all of a sudden the 3 percent you scared to death will be going, "Hey, I'm for that." You've just turned opponents into allies.
But where does the "leave us alone" approach leave the found ing principle of the religious right: that abortion should be illegal. Isn't it the liberals who want the government to leave women alone?
The religious right did not get started in 1962 with prayer in school. And it didn't get started in '73 with Roe v. Wade. It started in '77 or '78 with the Carter administration's attack on Christian schools and Christian radio stations [pressing for allegedly segregated Christian organizations to lose their tax-exempt status]. That's where all of the organization flowed out of. It was complete self-defense. It was then that the Protestants looked around and said, "Now what's this abortion issue that Catholics have been yapping about?" And the Protestants go, "You're right—we should not be killing babies." And they linked arms with the existing Right to Life movement, which was not getting traction. You have people who are pro-choice on abortion and pro-life in both parties, and it's based on whether or not you think the unborn child is a person with rights. If the unborn child is a person with rights, they should be left alone, and government's role is to protect them. If you think the pregnant woman is only one person, then the government has no business telling her what to do. And that's why [Republicans for Choice founder] Ann Stone and the Right to Life people are both in the Republican Party. They agree completely on the question of the role of the state. They just don't agree on how many people you count.
Where do you stand on the abortion issue personally?
I'm pro-life. But I run a taxpayer group, so I don't pontificate on the subject. What about same-sex marriage, another key issue for religious conservatives? Doesn't the "leave us alone" tack militate against banning gay unions?
That one is more wrapped around the axle. And the reason is sometime around 1600s, religion allows the state to nationalize marriage. So when people say, "We can't let the state change a sacrament by allowing same-sex marriage," I go, "Where were you 300 years ago, when you handed the state control of this issue?" So the proper political answer is: Churches, synagogues, and mosques should write marriage contracts, and the state should enforce contracts. You shouldn't have sacraments organized, managed, and defined by the states. Communities of faith ought to be into denationalizing marriage, just as I want to denationalize healthcare and education, rather than trying to get the federal government to run the post office correctly or manage marriage correctly.
Are you personally supportive of banning same-sex marriage?
I just haven't focused on it. I'm in D.C. so I don't even get to vote on that stuff. Some religious conservative leaders feel shirked by the GOP right now. They argue that religious conservatives are the most loyal Republican voters and that the party should take their issues more seriously.
Traditional-values conservatives who thought the Republicans weren't doing anything the last eight years remind me of that old joke where the guy is leaning up against the building and a policeman comes over and says, "Move along." And the guy says, "I'm holding the building up." And the cop goes, "Don't be an idiot, get out of here." And the guy walks away, and the building falls down. The Republicans in the House and Senate were stopping a whole flood of left-of-center social issues on abortion, gay issues, everything. They weren't winning those issues because the votes weren't there to pass stuff. But they were stopping bad stuff. You do have some leaders, not just social conservatives, who want other people to do their work for them. I never insist that a congressman and or a senator go out and lead on the tax issue. I lead on the tax issue. I make it easy for congressmen and senators to do the right thing. There are some social conservatives, like some other guys, who want the president to be point man on their issue. And presidents don't do that. They want congressmen and senators to jump on the hand grenade for them. No. Make it necessary for candidates to vote X, and they will.
Whining is not a way to change policy or make you beloved by elected officials. Some social conservatives think, "How come the Republican leadership hasn't done X?" The real question is: Why haven't you made it the easy and smart thing for any elected official to do?