The culture wars are making a comeback, but this time around, social conservatives find themselves in an unfamiliar position: playing defense.
Just look at the headlines of the past few weeks — gay marriage is gaining ground with landmark rulings in Vermont and Iowa; the Obama administration is putting immigration back on the front burner; gun control is on the table again in the wake of several mass shootings; and, as POLITICO reported this week, the vague prospect that the Senate will ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child has some conservatives talking about a constitutional amendment to guarantee the rights of parents.
But as social conservatives try to regain their leverage on gay marriage, gun control or immigration, they risk accusations of being politically tone deaf for pushing such issues while the U.S. economy remains in a crisis. When people are more worried about health care, job security and cratering 401ks, heated debate over who’s allowed to marry whom may seem out of touch.
“I think most people want relief from the divisive debates of the culture wars,” said Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign and GOP consultant. “Given the economic hardships most are facing, they probably view these arguments as old, irrelevant and a distraction. That said, I’m sure the cultural warriors are putting on their war paint and banging the tom-toms.”
And then there’s gun control. The mass shootings in Binghamton, N.Y,. and Carthage, N.C., and the cop shootings in Pittsburgh have sparked new debate on gun control, yet Democrats are not willing to engage the National Rifle Association this time around, realizing this issue is a loser on the political front in many moderate states and districts around the country.
When pressed on the issue in a Wednesday night interview with Katie Couric on CBS, Attorney General Eric Holder — who has a history of backing gun control — demurred. “No one’s told me to back off,” Holder told Couric. “I understand the Second Amendment. I respect the Second Amendment.”
Christian conservatives realize that their opportunities will be rare since they don’t set the agenda in Washington, which is why they are seizing on developments large and small to spark their activists.
On Thursday, for example, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.), tried to gin up opposition to President Barack Obama’s appointment of Harry Knox, a leader in the Human Rights Campaign, to the president’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Pence claimed that the appointment of Knox to a presidential commission “makes a mockery out of the religious beliefs of countless Americans.”
It’s not clear yet whether these little sparks of indignation will draw in a broader movement or will just rattle around a frustrated conservative echo chamber. But conservatives are doing whatever they can.
“You need to exploit every opportunity you have when you’re in the minority,” said Appell, the conservative PR strategist. “All you need is something to light the fuse.”