Conservative commentary: In defense of social conservatives

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— For rank-and-file Republicans, our party's mission is to advance freedom through limited government, strong national security, personal responsibility and traditional family values.

Although many Republicans generally adhere to all four of those elements, some do not; yet they remain allied because they are so strongly committed to many of those principles. Despite inner-party squabbles, most Republicans rationally accept that we must work together to form an electoral majority.

Recently, some have grumbled that social conservatives - pro-lifers, opponents of same-sex marriage and the "Religious Right" - are to blame for the party's recent setbacks and should be muzzled.

If the goal is winning elections, rather than purging membership rolls at the country club, throwing social conservatives under the bus is a catastrophically bad idea.

About two-thirds of Republicans are pro-life; the balance are pro-choice. However, overwhelming majorities in both camps weigh other factors before casting their vote. According to Gallop, rigidly single-issue voters constitute just 22 percent of pro-life Republicans and 8 percent of pro-choicers.

Just four years ago, pollsters credited "values voters" with re-electing President George W. Bush and expanding GOP majorities. This year, moderate "maverick" John McCain enjoyed strong support from evangelicals on Election Day, despite ranking as the least favorite primary candidate of pro-life Republicans.

Meanwhile, Republican moderates such as Colin Powell, William Weld and Lincoln Chaffee endorsed the Democrat. Bob Schaffer experienced similar defections from social moderates who certainly would have disdained defectors had the shoe been on the other foot.

So, why do some social moderates and libertarians find it so difficult to coexist with social conservatives?

Some believe social issues are a loser at ballot box, pointing to the 3-to-1 defeat of this year's "personhood" amendment. That's a poor example, because Amendment 48 split the pro-life community between those who hope to end abortion in one fell swoop and those who think an incremental approach is more practical.

Gallup says the public "is split nearly down the middle" on abortion, but measures like a ban on late-term abortion enjoy overwhelming support.

The other galvanizing social issue, preserving the traditional definition of marriage, is the most successful citizen initiative since term limits, and it enjoys even stronger support among blacks and Hispanics than among whites.

Another reason social issues cause a rift is that many in both camps are very principled in their beliefs. Moderates and libertarians truly believe that abortion and marriage fall beyond the bounds of limited government. Social conservatives reason that life is the foremost of our inalienable rights and that traditional marriage laws merely preserve what governments have codified for centuries.

Fiscal conservatives must recognize that social conservatives often are their strongest allies in the battle for low taxes and limited government. In the last legislative session, pro-life Republicans scored an average 65 percent on the Colorado Union of Taxpayers scorecard, while pro-choice Republicans averaged 41 percent.

Most social conservatives don't care what goes on in someone else's bedroom, but they take to the ramparts when those matters move to a courthouse or seek taxpayer funding. In most cases, conservatives didn't seek out these battles until liberal activists and judges ignited them.

Social moderates who say they just want government to "stay out of it" soon will be tested. Will they vociferously oppose restrictions on religious speech, taxpayer funding of abortion and federal legislation to pre-empt state laws on abortion and marriage?

Standing on principle is commendable, but beating each other over the head with our differences is a fool's sport. In the coming months, President-elect Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will remind us all too clearly that the principles that unite us are far greater than those that divide us.

We need that reminder because, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "We must all hang together or, assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

Mark Hillman operates a family farm near Burlington, Colorado, is a former Majority Leader of the Colorado Senate, a former Colorado State Treasurer, and is an honorary member of the Conservative Leadership Council of Northwest Colorado.

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