It's long been noted by many political observers with far more experience than I have that Republican candidates have mastered the art of scaring many low- and middle-income Americans into voting against their economic self-interest. Rather than debating issues that really make a difference in people's quality of life, such as health care, education and the environment, many Republican politicians instead keep the discussion narrowly focused on the reliable three hot topics of God, guns, and gays.
Even in this election cycle, when the news is dominated by increasingly grave reports of lack of stability in either the nation's economy or the planet's climate, the usual suspects are playing the same old game. But this time it might not work.
On the God front, a right-wing religious organization known as the Alliance Defense Fund is pushing the envelope with something it calls the Pulpit Initiative. This program encourages pastors to endorse political candidates during their sermons despite the IRS regulations that put their churches' tax-exempt status at risk if they do so.
"It is time for the intimidation and threats to end," the Alliance Defense Fund writes on its website. "Churches and pastors have a constitutional right to speak freely and truthfully from the pulpit."
The organization plans to help defend any pastors and churches that violate the current law. But the initiative has thus far failed to catch fire as a national issue.
No longer can the Republicans claim religious voters as belonging almost exclusively to their camp. Increasingly, especially amongst the young, even those who describe themselves as evangelical Christians are beginning to doubt whether the Republican Party always best represents their values.
Certainly, George W. Bush won re-election over John Kerry largely because of the religious right's enthusiasm for his candidacy, but things have changed. Barack Obama has shrewdly courted religious voters. African-American churches in particular seem to have played a major roll in his electoral successes thus far. So are a few far-right pastors encouraging their congregants to support John McCain really going to make that big of a difference? Probably not.
Regarding guns, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently in the landmark Heller case that Americans do indeed have a constitutional right to possess firearms for their own protection. It's simply no longer possible for gun-rights organizations such as the National Rifle Association to claim that the Democrats might steal every one's guns if they get elected. The federal government is now explicitly restricted in its abilities to prohibit the ownership of such weapons. Though the scare tactics continue, they seem to have lost much of their force.
And then we have the gays.
If there was a single factor that cost Kerry the 2004 election, it was the ballot initiatives to insert gay-marriage bans into many states' constitutions. These measures brought out droves of conservative voters in crucial swing states such as Ohio, effectively killing Kerry's chances there. This was despite the fact that he didn't even support gay marriage. Or, perhaps more accurately, he lacked the courage to support it publicly. (Just as Obama does now.)
A lot has changed since 2004. Massachusetts has allowed gay marriage for years, and California has allowed it for months. None of the far-right fear mongers' predictions of certain doom have come true. But, of course, there are still those who rail against gay rights.
Some of the wackiest of these bigots are even trying to blame the current financial crisis on gays.
"As there's a breakdown in the family and the family weakens it's only logical it will hit Wall Street," said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, according to the Associated Press. "A nation cannot be strong just because of a financial structure alone. It has to have strong families and values."
I could be wrong, but it really seems as though the tide has turned. The zealots preaching that church and state must be intertwined, rambling about guns and cold, dead hands, or warning that legalized gay marriage will somehow turn everyone's kids gay finally appear every bit as silly as they've always actually been.
It's time for conservatives to find some new issues.