Has the Religious Right gone too far in its control over the Republican Party? Some long-time GOP leaders are beginning to think so.
Today, in a New York Times op-ed piece, former U.S. Senator John C. Danforth, warned, "By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians."
Danforth, a former Missouri senator and United Nations ambassador, argued that the transformation has taken place with the push for involvement in the Terry Schiavo case, constant calls for restrictions on stem-cell research and for a constitutional amendment to bar gays from marriage.
"The problem is not with people or churches that are politically active," observed Danforth, an Episcopal priest. "It is with a party that has gone so far in adopting a sectarian agenda that is has become the political extension of a religious government.
"When government becomes the means of carrying out a religious program," he continued, "it raises obvious questions under the First Amendment. But even in the absence of constitutional issues, a political party should resist identification with a religious movement. While religions are free to advocate for their own sectarian causes, the work of government and those who engage in it is to hold together as one people a very diverse country."
Danforth urged his party to wake up and "rediscover" its roots.
Danforth's comments come close on the heels of remarks by another prominent Republican. On March 23, The New York Times reported on a House vote on legislation intended to intervene in the case of Mrs. Terri Schiavo. The newspaper quoted U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, one of five House Republican members who voted against the bill, as saying, "This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy. There are going to be repercussions from this vote. There are a number of people who feel the government is getting involved in their personal lives in a way that scares them."
But Danforth, Shays and other concerned voices within the party have a battle on their hands.
Since the 2004 elections, Religious Right behemoths, such as Focus on the Family's James Dobson and the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, have loudly and consistently proclaimed that it was their followers who helped re-elect President George W. Bush and other socially conservative Republicans.
And those Religious Right heavyweights have put forth an array of demands of the Republican Party, which include packing the federal courts with judges who will roll back reproductive rights, blocking advancement of civil rights for gays, passing laws interfering with stem-cell research and sanctioning organized religion in the public schools and church electioneering.
Just maybe the media attention surrounding the Schiavo tragedy will give courage to more moderates on both sides of the aisle to stand against an emboldened Religious Right lobby bent on turning our democracy into a theocracy.
According to recent polling, most Americans, including evangelicals and conservatives, were put off by lawmakers' rush to thrust themselves into the Schiavo situation. According to a CBS News poll, 82 percent thought Congress and the president should have stayed out of the matter. The polling also showed that 66 percent of Catholics and Protestants think the feeding tube should not be re-inserted.
Seventy-four percent also said they believed Congress got involved to advance a political agenda. Lawmakers did - but it was an agenda that is an affront to the constitutional values most Americans still strongly support.