Election ’09 and the Separation of Church and State

Last year, I argued that the big loser in Colorado’s elections was the religious right. Particularly here in the Interior West, Republican candidates who want to ram religious dogmas down people’s throats by force of law tend to scare the living hell out of voters, and that’s a major reason why Democrats now control all three branches of government in Colorado.

The general approach among Colorado Republicans seeking statewide or competitive congressional offices next year is to talk about the economy and downplay the “social” issues.

While I focus on Colorado politics and largely ignore races elsewhere, the three big races of 2009 may give an indication of where the Republican Party is headed, particularly with respect to the influence of the religious right. The three major results are these:

* In the New Jersey governor’s race, Republican Chris Christie beat out Democratic Governor Jon Corzine.

* In the Virginia governor’s race, Republican Bob McDonnell beat Democrat R. Creigh Deeds.

* In New York’s 23rd Congressional special election, something very strange happened. Initially, the race featured Republican Dierdre Scozzafava against Democrat Bill Owens (not to be confused with Colorado’s former Republican governor Bill Owens). But then upstart Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman garnered the support of grass-roots conservatives, prompting Scozzafava to drop out of the race. Owens beat Hoffman 49 to 45 percent.

So what does this mean?

Obviously the elections have implications far beyond the influence of the religious right. To some degree, the two Republican victories signal displeasure with Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress. Just as Obama benefitted last year from many votes against the other guy, so Republicans may be picking up protest votes this year.

But I am particularly interested in the dynamics of faith-based politics. I want to look at a few indicators, not conduct an exhaustive investigation.

Looking at New Jersey, Christianity Today reports that “Corzine targeted Christie in an ad criticizing Christie’s support of a constitutional ban on abortion and opposition of funding stem cell research.”

The claim about the constitutional ban is a little tenuous; it dates to a 2003 story in the Star-Ledger paraphrasing the former president of an organization that endorsed Christie in a 1997 race.

On his web page, Christie is certainly no friend to a woman’s right to choose, but neither does he call for anything like a comprehensive ban. Here’s what he has to say about abortion and homosexual couples:

I am pro-life. Hearing the strong heartbeat of my unborn daughter 14 years ago at 13 weeks gestation had a profound effect on me and my beliefs. The life of every human being is precious. We must work to reduce abortions in New Jersey through laws such as parental notification, a 24-hour waiting period and a ban on partial-birth abortion.

I also believe marriage should be exclusively between one man and one woman. While, I have no issue with same sex couples sharing contractual rights, I believe that marriage should remain the exclusive domain of one man and one woman.

It sounds very much to me like Christie endorses legal abortions in most cases and civil unions for homosexuals. His proposed restrictions are bad, but they’re a far cry from the worst.

The Star-Ledger confirms this:

In an interview, Christie today outlined his own positions on social issues, saying he evolved from pro-choice to pro-life with the birth of his children but would not use the governor’s office to “force that down people’s throats.” However, he said he favors restrictions on abortion rights such as banning partial-birth abortions and requiring parental notification and a 24-hour waiting period.

He said he favors the state’s current law allowing same-sex couples to form civil unions but would veto a bill legalizing same-sex marriage if it reached his desk.

Notably, Christie focuses on “cutting taxes, controlling spending and creating jobs.”

An Associated Press article neglects to mention abortion, stating that the race “focused on New Jersey’s ailing economy, its highest-in-the-nation property taxes and even Christie’s weight.” Craig Royer told the AP, “I’m tired of the Democrats. I voted for Chris Christie because he’s not Jon Corzine.”

In Virginia, “a quarter said their vote for McDonnell was also a rejection of Obama,” the AP reports.

McDonnell wants more restrictions on abortion, and he opposes even civil unions for homosexual couples. Yet it doesn’t seem that he was particularly keen to run on social issues. McDonnell ran far away from a 1989 thesis he wrote taking a hardline religious conservative stance on a variety of sexual and reproductive matters. The AP believes that “McDonnell dominated the campaign’s central issues: jobs and the economy.”

Richmond Magazine notes, “The moderator at the July 25 debate noted that neither candidate appeared to want to discuss ‘culture war’ issues in the campaign.”

Of course, the fact that many Republicans are trying to simultaneously appeal to the religious right in the primaries and hide that fact in the generals remains troublesome.

Moving to New York, it’s not hard to see why Scozzafava was hated by free market advocates as well as the religious right. Michelle Malkin writes:

There was no fiscal conservatism to balance her social radicalism. It wasn’t merely that she was “pro-choice.” She was also a proud recipient of a pro-abortion award named after eugenicist Margaret Sanger.

It wasn’t merely that she favored higher government spending. It was also that she supported the stimulus, which every single House Republican in office opposed, on top of her support for the union-expanding card-check bill, on top of her ambiguous statements on the energy tax-imposing cap-and-trade bill.

In this case, the AP does see faith-based issues as important, claiming that Scozzafava quit “under pressure from the party’s right wing because of her support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage.”

So what does Hoffman believe? In his election-night comments, he makes no reference to faith-based issues, choosing instead to talk about “freedom, sound fiscal management and citizen government.”

Hoffman’s “issues” page deserves some comments.

Hoffman seems to have little idea what a free market is or how to defend it. He opposes the stimulus, which is good, but then he favors “a bill that puts real money in the hands of Americans to spend.” So what are we talking about here? Putting the nation deeper in debt to hand out “free” money to people who didn’t earn it?

Hoffman’s notes on health policy are particularly telling. He writes, “Although universal health care sounds great in theory, we can’t afford to do everything at once… I believe our first step should be to bring the spiraling costs of healthcare under control [How?]… Then, as the economy picks up we can work to insure everyone.”

So now conservatives agree that it’s the federal government’s legitimate role to “insure everyone?” Wow.

Hoffman says he’d cut spending. But what would he cut? Entitlements, which threaten to bankrupt the nation? Apparently not. He would cut “wasteful earmarks,” an insignificant portion of the federal budget.

Surprisingly, Hoffman is pretty good (from a free market perspective) on immigration, writing, “The answer… is not to put up a wall and stop all immigration. The answer is to create an easier path for immigrants to enter the United States -– and to work here -– while at the same time getting tough on illegal immigrants who commit crimes.” He also looks good on gun rights, and he opposes cap-and-trade.

“Where do you stand on the issue of Roe vs. Wade?” Hoffman answers, “I am pro-life, period.” Because apparently that’s all the commentary the issue merits on a candidate’s “issues” page. But is he serious? Does he oppose abortion even if the mother’s life is at risk?

At best, Hoffman was a lightweight.

I don’t have a good sense of the dynamics of the race or what voters talked about and cared about. The New York Times claims that “grass-roots groups that have forcefully opposed Democratic economic and health care policies… rallied behind Mr. Hoffman.”

The sense I get is that, while religious conservatives helped blast Scozzafava out of the race, Hoffman didn’t play up the faith-based stuff too much with regular voters.

Interestingly, Marilyn Musgrave, ousted from her Congressional post by Colorado voters tired of her obsession with faith-based issues, played a role in the New York race through the Susan B. Anthony List, reports the Times.

The Hoffman vote, then, was a combination of disgust with the Republican candidate, disgust with the Democrats, and supporters of a variety of issues ranging from tax reform to abortion bans. It’s the sort of messy race that allows just about everybody to claim some sort of victory.

Maine is also a curious case. Voters rejected same-sex marriage, which, as I’ve argued, is for many not a faith-based issue, especially given the alternative of domestic partnerships. At the same time, voters rejected tax restrictions and expanded medical marijuana. So, if you’re a conservative, Maine went one for three. If you’re a left-winger, Maine went two for three. I’m disappointed with the tax vote but thrilled about medical marijuana.

So what is the upshot? The Republican party remains schizophrenic. Because it is ambiguous about free markets and split on faith-based issues, its hope seems to rest on voters’ discontent with the Democrats. And that’s pretty pathetic.