Once again the Republican primaries have exposed the many rivalries and varieties within the conservative movement. Ron Paul represents the libertarian strain, Newt Gingrich the more pragmatic side of Reaganism and Rick Santorum the Christian Right. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry can scarcely be categorized as conservative - one being the heir of the Bush legacy and the other the former "God and guns," Democrats who left the party in the 1990s.
But the factionalism is not accidental. The "moral majority" values voters prefer not to merge with more traditional right wingers to from a common front against Romney. As usual, they are underfinanced and destined to fail. Pat Robertson's 1988 campaign and Mike Huckabee's 2008 efforts were planted in Iowa and then promptly died on the vine. Christian activists in 1996 assiduously avoided Pat Buchanan, first going with Gary Bauer and then ultimately Robert Dole. It is clear they will never accept Paul or Gingrich in 2012. In doing so they become more isolated and less involved with the old right.
Paul presents problems because he is critical of Israel - this is the ultimate litmus test within the Christian movement. Like Buchanan, he embraces a less interventionist foreign policy and hence he is unacceptable, Gingrich simply has a three-wife problem and they will never embrace him no matter how hard he tries to appeal to them. As in elections past, they put up a weak token candidate then scramble to endorse the GOP's establishment choice. They have become a poor regiment within the Republican Party, fed a lot of rhetorical red meat while their core opinions get substantially unaddressed.
The march toward the Republican was for years a slow one. In 1976, a young Pat Robertson endorsed Jimmy Carter for president and switched to Reagan in 1980 because he considered Democrats to be too liberal. Only Jerry Falwell in 1976 supported Gerald Ford enthusiastically.
But since the 1980s, the Christian Right has been dedicated to the Republican Party. Superficially they resemble the ultra right wing, yet in policy their chief priorities are social in nature. They embrace free economic policies but their hearts lie with abolishing abortion and embracing the traditional family. Paul is an Ayn Randist and a hard-edge constitutionalist where freedom is not subject in most cases to compromise. You either have a free government or you don't. The Christian Right has no qualms with making laws restricting individual behavior. Fortunately as Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed would attest, lapses of economic ethics are not subject to a moral test.
For that reason, it is no surprise that the moral majority remains a weak part of the tea party coalition. They say little about bailouts and are stuck in the 1980s with their prime interest in fighting the "permissive society." Gingrich, who says all the right things, is unacceptable because of who he is. In the long run, he may have been the most promising candidate. Instead the Christian Right supports Santorum, who will soon join Huckabee, Bauer and Robertson on the list of ineffectual challengers. But of all the members of the so-called Right, the Christian coalition is least susceptible to playing nice with other ultra conservatives.
Perhaps it is because at their core they are not conservatives. They come out of a tradition of moral legislation, which has its roots in the Progressive era. To its credit the Christian GOP does not respond to the politics of race and within their own sphere appear to be remarkably tolerant. But in 2012, the religious right because of their insular approach to politics again have chosen isolation from the rest of the Republican conservative movement.