The Empty Threats of Evangelicals

May 19, 2006 · 12:05 AM EDT

President Bush is an easy target these days. Two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the job he is doing and even Bush’s loyal supporters are taking the opportunity to pile-on. Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other evangelical leaders are criticizing the president for inaction on social issues dear to their hearts and threatening to withhold their support in the November elections.

While the threat seems intimidating at first glance, the concept of staying home in November carries little long-term consequences for President Bush and Republicans but virtually certain consequences for the very issues social conservatives wish to promote.

First, President Bush is not on the ballot in November. Evangelicals patted themselves on the back in 2004 for reelecting the president, returning the House GOP majority, and taking over the U.S. Senate. Evangelicals demanded credit, recognition, attention, and action on their issues.

Conservative evangelicals were promptly disappointed with the president for not taking strong action to prohibit gay marriage. It shouldn’t be a big surprise since he only paid lip service to the issue during his first four years in office.

Now, President Bush has no real electoral reason to cower to evangelical threats, because he won’t be on a ballot ever again. So, by attempting to punish Bush in November by staying home, evangelicals will actually punish conservatives like Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), Sen. George Allen (R-VA), Cong. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Cong. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), Cong. Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO), and others who could be sent packing by voters instead.

Note to evangelicals: it will be harder to get your agenda passed by exercising a strategy that allows political friends to be defeated for reelection. Then you’re left with an uncooperative and unpopular president, minorities in Congress, and no friends in those minorities.

On a macro-level, Republicans are already in danger of losing their majorities, but dismal turnout by base Republicans will make Democratic takeovers near-certainties. Then, conservative evangelicals would have no hope of getting their issues passed and would be lucky to get a meeting with the new majority, let alone private nurturing.

And with a Republican minority, conservative evangelicals will have to wait for 2008 and moderate-talking Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to ride in on a white horse and trumpet conservative social issues he has never championed in his life.

Conservative evangelicals find themselves in a political predicament of their own creation. They have chosen to put all of their eggs in the Republican basket. But now that President Bush is as popular as the bird flu, they have nowhere to go. Instead of utilizing the incredible diversity and potential of the one-quarter of the U.S. population that calls themselves evangelicals, the movement’s leaders have chosen to paint themselves into a partisan corner.

So, while Republicans could suffer significant losses at the polls in November, they are in no real danger of losing the largest section of their base to the Democratic Party. Conservative evangelical leaders are determined to control the Republican Party instead of expanding their influence into both parties. That’s also why Democrats shouldn’t read too much into any electoral gains this fall. Democratic gains will be a result of President Bush’s lousy job numbers, not the effectiveness of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean’s embarrassing outreach to evangelicals.

The current rhetoric of Dobson, Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, and others shows a complete misunderstanding of the political environment. President Bush is not broadly unpopular because he has failed to ban same-sex marriage.

Yet, conservative evangelicals continue to press him to do so.

With the War in Iraq and increasing threats from Iran, if President Bush were to spend all of his time and energy on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, he would simply look silly, and his job approval ratings would likely plummet even further.

The idea of “staying home” to punish the Republican Party is absurd. For conservative evangelicals to tout the fundamental need for freedom and democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but simply ignore their own opportunity to vote here in America is hypocritical.

For too many conservative evangelicals, the message appears to be: if you don’t get what you want, stay home. Apparently, to some of these evangelical leaders, the best way to win the political game is to take themselves out of it. That makes little sense in today’s world, or in today’s politics.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on May 17, 2006.