Social conservatives have long road ahead

DALLAS Sun Nov 9, 2008 9:08am EST

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DALLAS (Reuters) - U.S. social conservatives face a moment of reckoning.

In the ascendancy a few years ago and a pillar of outgoing Republican President George W. Bush's support, they are on the defensive after Barack Obama won the White House and his Democratic Party strengthened its grip on Congress.

Most U.S. conservatives of all stripes still call the Republican Party home and in the two-party U.S. system may have little option but to hang together under its tent.

And the conservative Christians of the "religious right," as the movement is widely known, remain the party's most reliable base and strongly supported Republican John McCain on November 4.

He and running mate Sarah Palin, who staunchly represented their social views, got 73 percent of the white evangelical Protestant vote, just 5 percentage points less than Bush took in 2004.

"In order for the social conservatives to succeed, they will need to have something to mobilise against. It could be an issue or the congressional leadership," said Michael Lindsay, a political sociologist at Rice University in Houston.

Conservative Christians can still mobilise effectively around issues even if they can not always deliver the White House for Republicans. Even though their national candidate lost on Tuesday, they still managed to pass anti-gay marriage measures in California and Florida, states won by Obama.

Abortion rights will also continue to galvanize them. For many evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics, opposition to abortion remains the defining issue of their age.

"I look at what (Obama) wants to implement and it scares me ... He wants no restrictions on abortion whatsoever," James Dobson, founder of the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family, said on Thursday on his radio show, which reaches millions.

While Obama strongly advocates abortion rights, he also wants to reduce the number of abortions by expanding access to contraception to lower the risk of unplanned pregnancy.

Conservative culture warriors are girding for battle with the Obama administration and have their eyes on the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), now before the Democratic-led Congress, which would further entrench a woman's right to an abortion.

Conservatives say it would sweep aside most restrictions on abortion rights, such as parental notification laws.

"If Obama signs FOCA you will have a culture war the likes of which you have never seen before," said Bill Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League.

Obama has promised to sign it into law if it passes through Congress, which should not be a problem with Democrats firmly in control.

"The challenge starting first thing ... is raising awareness about just how extreme his (Obama's) agenda is, starting with (FOCA)," said Charmaine Yoest, president of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life Action.

She said her group was reaching out to Democrats who are also against abortion rights, signalling a departure from past social conservative strategies that relied heavily on the Republican Party to push its agenda.

EVANGELICAL DIVISIONS

There are also emerging divisions within the Christian evangelical movement, which accounts for one in four U.S. adults. Many of its leaders - while still opposing abortion rights and gay marriage -- want a broader agenda that includes action on climate change and concern for the poor.

These divisions mean that evangelical support for Republicans may have peaked with Bush and that some religious conservatives may now support Obama in areas like health care and housing.

Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, said some members were excited by Obama, a devout Christian himself.

"I think evangelicals should know that Barack Obama understands evangelicals better than any president since Jimmy Carter (a former Southern Baptist who left office in 1981). It doesn't mean he agrees with us on all of these hot button social issues," he told Reuters.

But he said Obama recognized that challenges like climate change, homelessness and poverty were "moral problems" and that the president-elect, who often evokes his Christian faith as a driving force in his life, could work with evangelicals on those kinds of issues.

There are clearly some evangelical leaders who will not work with Obama because of abortion and other topics.

But Cizik said that was a mistake, saying a strategy of confrontation "would further isolate and marginalize them."

Some social conservatives signalled that they are ready to rally around Palin, who helped energize the party's base. But her strident opposition to abortion and "God and guns" persona upset many moderate Republicans and independent voters.

(Editing by David Storey)

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