On Fox News Sunday, leading House conservative Mike Pence looked at the success of ballot initiatives that deny equal marriage rights as evidence that conservatism remains healthy in America.
Discussing how the Republican Party should move forward, Pence told host Chris Wallace:
…you build those conservative solutions, Chris, on the same time-honored principles of limited government, a belief in free markets, a belief in the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage. You look at those social issues, Chris — you know, there were three state referendums on marriage. All three of them carried — I think in Florida, California and Arizona. You know, the vitality of the conservative movement around the country is very real.
Which told me, conservatives still don’t accept the depth of their “secular problem” — a problem that just got worse.
Before the 2006 midterm elections, I wrote in Wait! Don’t Move To Canada! that “…there are an equal amount of voters who attend services at least weekly as there are voters who seldom or never go. It is true that regular churchgoers trend Republican and the ‘seldom of never’ group trends Democratic, but that means you could just as easily say Republicans have a ‘secular problem.’”
But after the 2006 elections, the conservative “secular problem” became the bigger problem. Based on Pew Research Center exit poll data, I then wrote:
Democrats crushed Republicans among secular voters, broadly defined as those who attend church seldom (favoring Democrats 60% to 38%) or never (67% to 30%). Republicans retained strong support among those who attend church more than weekly. But among those who only go weekly — the larger portion of the religious vote — the Republican lead shrunk from 15 points to 7.
In short, Republicans failed to be competitive among secular voters, while Democrats were at least competitive among regular churchgoers. And since the secular vote is roughly equal to the regular churchgoing vote, according to the last several national election exit polls, that means Republicans and their conservative base have a far bigger secular problem than their rivals have a religion problem.
Now, after the 2008 presidential election, the conservative “secular problem” looms even larger. Why?
1. The secular vote Is bigger.
Unlike the previous two presidential election, the secular vote — defined as voters attending religious services seldom or never — is bigger than the weekly churchgoing vote.
Meanwhile weekly churchgoers composed 39% of the electorate, down from 42% in 2004, and now trailing the collective secular vote by 5 points.
2. The secular vote has moved even farther away from conservatives.
3. Liberals have a stronger religious-secular coalition.
President-Elect Barack Obama, whom more than 60% of voters consider to be “liberal,” ran stronger among weekly churchgoers than Vice-President Al Gore or Sen. John Kerry.
Obama received 43% of the vote from voters who attend religious services weekly or more than weekly. For Kerry, those numbers were 41% and 35%. For Gore, it was 40% and 36%.
Obama’s positions on hot-button social issues are no different than what Gore and Kerry ran on. In fact, he talked about ending division between “gay and straight” more regularly than his predecessors.
But Obama’s outreach to religious voters was more consistent. And Bush’s failed conservative policies hurt religious voters just as much as secular voters, providing an opening for Obama’s message of active government, and proving that you can forge common ground between religious and secular voters without sacrificing liberal progressive principles.
For conservatives to cling to the slim victory of California’s Prop 8 as evidence that America is a “center-right” nation is more self-delusion.
Yes, gay marriage remains a bridge too far for most Americans as of today. But the basic principle of equal rights for gays is embraced by the majority — in the 2004 exit poll a broad majority supported either gay marriage or civil unions.
Further, if conservatives want to prevent young voters — two-thirds of whom support Obama — from remaining liberal Democrats for their rest of their lives, hating on gays is not exactly the best way to do it.
Most importantly, for conservatives to cling to opposition of gay marriage exposes their strange prioritization of issues.
The economy is reeling, we face a myriad of foreign policy threats — problems created or exacerbated by conservative policies — and instead of owning up to your failures and coming with new ideas to fix the problem, top of your list is stopping somebody else from getting married?
That sends exactly wrong signal to secular voters, as did the comical attempt by conservative congressional leaders in 2005 to meddle in the affairs of Terri Schiavo — that conservatives consider writing their specific religious views into law as more important than doing something to improve the quality of life for all Americans.
The first step always is admitting you have a problem. Conservatives clearly have not gotten there yet.