In a deeply sobering article, R.R. Reno warns of the danger of faith becoming captive to political alliance:
First, religiosity now strongly correlates with partisan loyalty. Nones are overwhelmingly Democrat. Regular churchgoers, especially but not exclusively Evangelicals, trend Republican. This politicizes religion. Second, religious people are becoming more and more dependent on the Republican party to protect their interests (religious liberty, for example). We could easily become a taken-for-granted base largely irrelevant to the party’s larger policy debate, as African-Americans often are in the Democratic party. Third, religion, especially orthodox Christianity, may end up implicated in the inevitable failures and corruptions of the Republican party. We may be in danger of recapitulating in some ways the disastrous alliances of the Catholic Church with the European right in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The risks are real, and it is not obvious how they could be entirely avoided without abandoning electoral politics. To pick only one issue, the abortion extremism of the national Democratic party denies pro-life religious conservatives much of a choice between the two parties. That dynamic would seem to allow Republican office holders to get the votes of religious conservatives cheap and to be able to count on the support of religious conservatives even when Republicans prove incompetent or corrupt.
Aside from the policy problems, the over-identification of faith with one party damages the appeal of the faith itself. There are some steps that religious conservatives could take that might increase their leverage within the Republican party while making their political concerns less specifically Republican.
First, to the extent possible, religious conservatives should change how they assign credit or blame to politicians who are seeking their support. The current setup—in which Republican politicians speak social conservatism primarily to social conservatives and otherwise try to avoid those issues as much as possible—is not working for either side. Romney's 2012 Republican convention speech contained the following lines about the social issues:
"As president, I'll respect the sanctity of life. I'll honor the institution of marriage. And I will guarantee America's first liberty, the freedom of religion."
These lines were awkwardly placed between a promise not to raise taxes and another promise to go on a jobs tour. There was no argument designed to convince. It was only a signal to a pre-existing base. Many people who only occasionally follow politics might have had little idea what Romney was talking about on freedom of religion. That was probably not accidental. We are used to Republican politicians who attend meetings of social conservative activists and share their allegedly deep (though sometimes recently and conveniently arrived at) commitments when they hope the general public is not watching. This means that the uncommitted rarely hear the arguments for social conservatism defended. It also means that Republican politicians are at the mercy of liberal interlocutors who get to choose both the timing and the vocabulary of social policy argument. Social conservatives should assign praise for what Republican candidates say when they volunteer arguments to a general audience for the purpose of persuading the persuadable rather than signaling to the committed.
And yet, if religious conservatives can incentivize Republicans to be somewhat better, it would not be prudent to expect too much improvement. Even if they were skilled and principled, Republican candidates would have to make their case about abortion or religious liberty on a compressed schedule to that fraction of the persuadable public that consumes the news media. Much of what they say would be filtered through media outlets that range from the consciously to the unconsciously hostile.
Religious conservatives could be less party-centric and reactive in how they spend their political time and energy. They could (and should) continue to vote for the candidate closest to their principles. This would often mean taking an interest in the Republican nominating contests and voting Republican in the general election. But politics could be much improved if a selection of religious conservative donors (and religious conservatives who are not presently donors but take an interest in politics) shifted their donations away from Republican candidates (and third-party organizations dedicated to helping Republican candidates) and toward making the case to the general public on a few key issues. Pick the issues long before the election, and fund a message to appeal to the uncommitted.
Even if Romney were ideal, there would only be so much he could do to illustrate the sanctity of human life. Pictures of late-term fetuses would do more. Religious conservatives could spend less time and money on electing whomever the Republicans nominate and more time trying to shift those segments of public opinion that are open to persuasion. The Republicans would still find plenty of money to fund their campaigns. The priorities of religious conservatives would seem less specifically Republican as people would not be hearing about them in a partisan context. To the extent that religious conservatives gained ground within public opinion, both parties would, in different ways, make adjustments.
Pete Spiliakos, "How a Better GOP Can Do Better Among Nonwhite Voters."
Pete Spiliakos, "Aggressive Incrementalism: A Winning Strategy for Pro-Lifers."
Warren Cole Smith, "GOP can't write off social conservatives just yet."