Dick Cheney's religious doubters

20050120 5 4 p44290 334 515hIn case you have been on another planet for the past few days, 37-year-old Mary Cheney, the high-profile gay daughter of the Vice President Dick Cheney, is pregnant. The mainstream press accounts all note that she is expecting this child "with" Mary Poe, her partner of 15 years, but journalists are allowing the couple a rare zone of privacy and are not exploring the precise meaning of the word "with." Unless I missed something, The Washington Post broke the story in a breezy, chatty way that treated it more as a people story rather than a move in the field of political combat.

But that tone didn't last long.

Since then, one of the key questions for the mainstream press has, of course, been the degree to which people on the Religious Right will or will not live up to their barbarian reputations by criticizing this development in the big tent of the modern Republican Party. The ususal suspects must be quoted saying the usual things. Thus, there is this totally predictable section in the New York Times report:

Focus on the Family, a Christian group that has provided crucial political support to President Bush, released a statement that criticized child rearing by same-sex couples.

"Mary Cheney's pregnancy raises the question of what's best for children," said Carrie Gordon Earll, the group's director of issues analysis. "Just because it's possible to conceive a child outside of the relationship of a married mother and father doesn't mean it's the best for the child."

In 2004, Ms. Cheney worked on the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, which won in part because of the so-called values voters who were drawn to the polls by ballot measures seeking to ban same-sex marriage.

As I said, the coverage has been quite predictable -- with one major exception.

To be blunt about it, the lede on the Los Angeles Times story by reporter Johanna Neuman struck me as really bizarre, if not dead wrong. Nevertheless, it did offer a clue as to why -- to grab a blunt metaphor -- some of the religious dogs that the mainstream press expected to be barking about this story are not barking to the degree one would expect.

Here is the opening of this story, which ran with the headline "A pregnant pause in right wing -- Social conservatives remain silent or temper their criticism about news that Cheney's gay daughter is expecting."

WASHINGTON -- No Republican in Washington is more beloved by social conservatives than Vice President Dick Cheney, who with his wife, Lynne, has backed and breathed every issue dear to them for six tumultuous years.

News that Cheney's lesbian daughter, Mary, is pregnant has therefore touched a nerve, as advocates for conservative values struggle to reconcile their loyalty to the Cheneys with their visceral opposition to same-sex relationships -- and particularly to raising a child without a father.

Here is the key question. What is a "social conservative"?

I assume that this is a person who is conservative on the hot-button social issues that have served as fault lines in American politics in recent decades, primarily issues linked to -- warning, Catholic language ahead -- the "sanctity of human life," the definition of marriage and, to some degree, public education. The opposite of a "social" conservative is an "economic," a "business," a "country club" or even a libertarian conservative.

So is a "social" conservative the same thing as a "moral" or even "religious" conservative? I would assume so.

But there's the rub. The "cultural" and "social" conservatives that I know are not big fans of Dick Cheney, although they may admire his wife. They consider him the natural leader of the win-at-any-cost Karl Rove-ite Republicans who, if anything, are probably laughing behind closed doors at the naive religious wackos who think that "values issues" can trump matters of military might, taxes, business and foreign policy in real life (as opposed to election spinning).

I know that there are some win-at-any-cost religious conservatives and they may have viewed Cheney as someone who -- because it was in his interest -- would back their cause. Some of them may have defended him whenever he was attacked. But I have never sensed that many of them trusted the guy or thought his interest in their issues was sincere. Cheney is a cold-eyed political realist, a Rush Limbaugh man more than a James Dobson man.

There's the faith-based wing of the GOP and then there's the, well, strictly-politics wing.

If what I am saying is accurate, then you can expect a mixed, confused or muted response to this Cheney news from folks in the pews of the religious conservatives. After all, he really isn't their man. The chapel at the GOP country club isn't used all that often and most of them know it.

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