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Beware the Republican reset: It’s more a return to powerful roots than a crash-and-burn

The statue of Grief and History is pictured in front of the U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington October 16, 2013.


In the last few weeks, as the fruitless Republican battle against the Affordable Care Act shut down the United States government – disrupting the lives of more than 2-million federal employees and sending party support into free fall – pundits and party members have railed against the deep rift that has opened between American conservatives.

"It's civil war in the G.O.P.," veteran party member Richard Viguerie told The New York Times.

There is a visible fault line in the "Grand Old Party" that is both generational and institutional. Younger members of the House of Representatives – who talk about the loss of the party's "soul" and rally around figures such as Texan Senator Ted Cruz – are unwilling to negotiate. Older members of the Senate – who call for a return to an "adults'" party and are galvanized by the likes of Senator John McCain – are frustrated by their colleagues' rigidity.

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But will the turmoil break up the party? Does the future portend a divided GOP? Probably not – the party is still cohesive. Few Republicans are friends of President Barack Obama's health-care plan or of big government, and they wouldn't be considered moderates by any standard other than the Tea Party's absolutist dictum.

What we are seeing now is not the end of the GOP, but the reconfirmation of its basic values.

When squabbling starts

It's instructive to remember that intra-party strife is built into the American system. The country's two major parties are inherently big tents – otherwise, they couldn't survive – which means that they often squabble amongst themselves.

The trick is containing those squabbles. For four decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s, the Democrats pulled together racist Jim Crow whites in the South and unionized African American workers in the North to form a powerful alliance that dominated the White House and Congress. But those factions split over the anti-war and civil-rights movements in the 1970s, divisive issues that played out for a decade against a backdrop of economic recession. Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" wooed away the Democrats' disgruntled Southern whites and Sunbelt suburbanites and joined them with fiscal conservatives, Protestant evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics, libertarians, neoconservatives and the GOP establishment. And now, after nearly 30 years of political dominance, it's his party that is taking a turn at managing deep internal tensions.

These tensions are usually minimized in the Republican Party by managing two major, and seemingly opposed, groups: the libertarians, who simply want to be left alone, and the Religious Right, moralizers who want to dictate the lives of others. When these divisions among conservatives have come to the fore – as they did when Mr. McCain called the fiery religious leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" for their moral extremism – the Republican Party has suffered. When the two groups have been brought together by skilled politicians – Mr. Reagan and George W. Bush – they've formed a partnership that's tough to beat.

Few might expect the groups to partner at all. But we forget that the guiding spirit of Christian conservatives is not that different from libertarians' fear and loathing of a highly centralized federal government.

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It may seem counter-intuitive today, as conservative ministers pray for the nation "to return to God" and call for more religion in public life, but for most of American history Christian conservatives were the most passionate defenders of the separation of church and state. The faithful who make up the rank and file of the Religious Right draw their inheritance from forebears who saw the First Amendment – which allowed for the free establishment and exercise of religion – as protections against the government interference that was common in Europe and in several of the American colonies. From these beginnings, Christian conservatives have opposed nearly all government regulation since.

Recall the evangelical Baptists of colonial Virginia and Massachusetts, who suffered at the hands of state-supported Anglican and Congregational elites and were among the first to call for the separation of church and state. Recall the Mormons, who battled government interference for the first century of their existence. Recall the uniquely American nonconformist sects, such as circuit-riding Methodists or the Pentecostals, who thrived under the First Amendment's deregulated spiritual marketplace. Recall that in 1962, Southern Baptists actually supported the Supreme Court's decision to ban prayer in public schools. Recall, finally, a 1965 sermon entitled "Ministers and Marchers," which condemned the activist clergy who dared to mix religion and politics – delivered by none other than Rev. Falwell.

Much has changed since then, and Southern Baptists are now among those calling for the return of faith to public education. Until the 1960s, the separation of church and state allowed Christian conservatives to have their cake and eat it too: The state was kept at arm's length from the church even as politics and government were saturated with religion. Following the Supreme Court's decisions on school prayer in 1962 and 1963, however, the First Amendment no longer protected religion but ostracized it. Thomas Jefferson's wall of separation, once filled with cracks, was sealed shut.

With little space left for religion in public life, Christian conservatives abandoned their strictures against political activism and became some of the most adept political operators in the nation. Fifteen years later, the same Rev. Falwell who delivered "Ministers and Marchers" founded the Moral Majority.

But what has not changed is the Christian conservative attitude towards the state, especially government regulation. This helps explain why evangelicals and fundamentalists, traditionally found in the lowest socioeconomic tiers, have consistently opposed government programs such as welfare, from which they would directly benefit. To allow the government into your home, they argue, would be the death of both the church and the family. Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson stoked their anger decades ago, just as Barack Obama does now.

It also helps explain the state of the Republican party right now. The coalition between anti-statist libertarians and Christian conservatives hasn't come undone. On the contrary, these are the two dominant groups that drive the Tea Party.

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Losing ordinary voters

There is one risk as the purists reshape the party and call the tune, however – that the G.O.P. will lose its broader appeal.

More than anything else, a party's ability to control its internal tensions and contradictions determine its political fate. But in reconciling competing interests, a party must also be attractive to ordinary voters, not just party activists. And it's here that today's Republicans are falling down. In a Gallup poll last week, only 28 per cent of Americans had a favourable opinion of the Republican Party. Among the larger cohort of Republicans, 27 saw their party in negative terms, as well.

The past decade has witnessed unusually high bitterness and partisanship in the Republican Party because, like the early 1930s and the 1970s, we are in a moment of transition, when one era crumbles under the weight of an economic crisis and gives way to the next. This time, the Democrats are the ones poised to take advantage of its opposition's internal fault lines. They also have demographic trends, driven by immigration, in their favour.

But first they'll need to build a new governing coalition, and whether Mr. Obama is the leader to do it remains in question. Despite his outreach to religious Americans, particularly Catholic Latinos and evangelical and Pentecostal blacks, the President lacks the communication skills of FDR and Mr. Reagan. He's also doesn't have the intuitive feel for retail politics of George W. Bush.

One thing's for certain, though: In trying to make life harder for the Democrats, the Republicans are unwittingly making it a lot easier.

Andrew Preston is the Charles Taylor Prize-winning author of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.

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