Having spent last year diligently supporting George W. Bush's reelection campaign, the Religious Right's political brigades expected that the president would remember them when shaping his second-term agenda.

As 2005 began, President Bush traveled across the country campaigning hard for his policy priorities. But as right-wing activists listened to his statements, they didn't hear what they had hoped for: somehow Social Security privatization had replaced a ban on gay marriage and abortion curbs as a top-tier agenda item.

Eliminating all doubt about his priorities, Bush commented to The Washington Post that "nothing will happen" on the marriage amendment for now because many senators did not see the need for it.

This affront proved too much to handle. In a confidential letter to Bush political consigliore Karl Rove, a coalition of major Religious Right leaders chastised the president for his neglect of the same-sex marriage issue in favor of Social Security changes and tax cuts, according to The New York Times.

"We couldn't help but notice the contrast between how the president is approaching the difficult issue of Social Security privatization where the public is deeply divided and the marriage issue where public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side," the letter said. "Is he prepared to spend significant political capital on privatization but reluctant to devote the same energy to preserving traditional marriage?"

The Religious Right's letter continued, "When the administration adopts a defeatist attitude on an issue that is at the top of our agenda, it becomes impossible for us to unite our movement on an issue such as Social Security privatization where there are already deep misgivings."

The realpolitik character of the letter is shocking. The authors brazenly announced a quid pro quo: the president must enthusiastically back a federal marriage amendment in exchange for the Religious Right's support for his Social Security privatization scheme. If he balks, they walk.

The endgame of this fight will reveal the true power of these far-right leaders in the Bush White House.

But there is another more disturbing lesson from this fight. Religious Right leaders now see themselves as hardball political operatives. Any change to the Social Security system will have serious effects for America's elderly in the near and long term. Whether good or bad, changes present serious ethical and moral questions about how our society should care for the less fortunate and the less able.

So-called "Christian conservatives" now seem willing to put aside the moral reflections demanded by this important issue and simply decide their position by Machiavellian calculus. As the slogan goes, "What would Jesus do?"