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Mel Gibson and Premature Obituaries

Frank Rich of the New York Times column has written another installment in a seemingly endless series of obituaries of religious conservatism, the latest tied to Mel Gibson’s travails. In Rich’s formulation, Gibson is a “powerful and canonized figure in the political and cultural pantheon of American conservatism,” so his recent personal challenges and the release of highly embarrassing audiotapes recorded during a bitter custody dispute are a metaphor for the decline of the cultural right. The idea that Mel Gibson’s misconduct somehow signals the downfall of religious conservatism is nonsense. A movement for time-honored values built over three decades and enjoying the support of one out of every four voters does not slide into the abyss because of the behavior of a Hollywood actor. Recall that when the televangelism scandals erupted in the 1980’s and the Moral Majority closed its doors, many rushed to proclaim the movement’s death-knell. Within a few years the Christian Coalition had enrolled two million members and activists and a Republican Congress reformed welfare, cut taxes, balanced the budget, and passed a ban on partial-birth abortion. Whoops. Faith-based conservatism is actually enjoying a quiet resurgence. Consider the election of Bob McDonnell as governor of Virginia in 2009. After weathering withering attacks for a Regent University master’s thesis advocating pro-family public policy, McDonnnell won by a landslide. Self-identified evangelical voters were 34% of the electorate, the largest on record, and they voted 91% for McDonnell. Or the election of Chris Christie, the first pro-life governor in New Jersey. Previous victorious GOP nominees for governor like Tom Kean and Christie Todd Whitman ran as pro-choice candidates. But Christie’s candidacy energized Catholic and pro-life voters, and the results showed at the ballot box, where he carried self-identified “values voters.” One of his first appointments was Bret Schundler, a conservative champion, as commissioner of education. For further evidence of the continued vibrancy of the pro-family constituency, look no further than Sarah Palin’s endorsements, which have propelled conservative women like Sharron Angle and Nikki Haley to victory. These “mama grizzlies” are rightly identified with the Tea Party movement, but they are also women of deep faith who strongly support marriage, life, and family. If they were not, they would not have won. Many were aided by the Susan B. Anthony List, the pro-life women’s group that is giving feminism a conservative twist. (Incidentally, Haley’s victory shows the short-sightedness of proclaiming the movement’s demise because of the personal failings of some. The media trumpeted Mark Sanford’s extramarital affair and subsequent divorce. But none of that mattered at the ballot box. Haley, one of Sanford’s strongest allies in the legislature, won going away.) The health care debate also showed the potency of values. Obamacare would not have passed in the House without a carve-out for pro-life Democrats, who then found themselves subsequently betrayed by the Senate and the White House. So strong was the backlash when they caved that Bart Stupak of Michigan retired from Congress rather than face defeat. There is no telling how many Blue Dog Democrats will lose their seats this fall because they voted against the pro-life convictions of their districts, but the number could be large. When those we admire (or those we do not) stumble, we should hate the sin but love the sinner. When Jesus approached the adulteress, he did not condemn her, but rather rebuked those who wanted to stone her and commanded her to sin no more. We should do the same. Rich’s timing seems odd, given the bleak prospects for Democrats in November. Something tells me when the votes are counted in 2010, pro-family conservatives will be able to say, in the words of Mark Twain, that the premature reports of their death are greatly exaggerated.

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