Is it time for a truce in the “culture wars”?

Indiana’s Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, thought so – for about five minutes. Under outraged pressure from the Religious Right, he quickly reversed himself.

The drama began last week when Daniels told the right-wing Weekly Standard that it is time for the country to put social issues aside and deal with pressing economic concerns.

Daniels has been bandied about as a possible presidential contender for the GOP nomination in 2012. He hasn’t announced anything yet and may be just testing the waters. If so, he’s off to a bad start with the Religious Right, a core GOP constituency.

The next president, Daniels said “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while.”

Daniels added that the country faces a “genuine national emergency” over spending and budgetary issues and that this means “maybe these things [social issues] could be set aside for a while. But this doesn’t mean anybody abandons their position at all. Everybody just stands down for a little while, while we try to save the republic.”

Religious Right leaders would have none of that. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, immediately went ballistic and accused Daniels of selling out the “pro-life” cause.

“Regardless of what the establishment believes, fiscal and social conservatism have never been mutually exclusive,” Perkins said. “Without life, there is no pursuit of happiness. Thank goodness the Founding Fathers were not timid in their leadership; they understood that ‘truce’ was nothing more than surrender.”

Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and a Religious Right favorite, also piled on.

“A strong leader doesn’t need to focus myopically on one or two issues,” Huckabee, himself a failed presidential candidate, wrote on his Web site. “But a strong leader is willing to fight for and defend their principles while rising to meet new challenges and solve all of the existing systemic problems confronting us.”

What happened next isn’t surprising: Daniels stepped back from his comments. He said his remarks were just suggestions and added, “I picked the word truce because no one has to change their point of view. No one has to surrender.”

The irony is, Daniels didn’t really have to retreat. Most Americans agree with him. Recent polls have consistently shown issues like jobs, the economy and the deficit topping the list of voters’ concerns.

In a Gallup poll taken last month, 26 percent of respondents said the economy in general is their top concern. Unemployment came in second at 22 percent, while healthcare took 15 percent.

Down near the bottom of the list, at 4 percent, was “Ethics/Moral/Religious/Family Decline.”

The “culture war” issues – opposition to gay rights, legal abortion and church-state separation – have always been the obsession of the shock troops of the Religious Right and their leaders. Firmly convinced that God (who, conveniently, shares all of their right-wing political opinions) has ordained them to run everyone else’s lives, followers of the Religious Right constantly seek government power to enshrine their aggressive theology in law.

Most sensible Americans are mature enough to realize that in a nation of more than 300 million people and hundreds (if not thousands) of different faiths and philosophies, there will be some disagreement on moral issues. Their way of dealing with this is to respect differences, give a nod to diversity and not meddle in their neighbor’s private affairs.

But to the Religious Right, meddling in other people’s lives isn’t just recommended – it’s required. Their tiresome “my-way-or-the-highway” theology wedded to far-right politics is a recipe for division and discord – yet they claim the moral superiority to lord it over the rest of us.

Some of the Religious Right’s demands aren’t just divisive, they’re unrealistic. In Iowa, a group called the Iowa Family PAC has announced it won’t support Terry Branstad, the former GOP governor who is running for the seat again, even though he opposes legal abortion, opposes same-sex marriage and advocates policies favorable to homeschoolers.

Branstad’s crime?

He refuses to say he’ll issue an executive order overturning a 2009 ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage. Here’s the rub: The governor doesn’t have the power to issue such orders.

Daniels’ quick retreat from an otherwise sensible proposal and the Iowa mix-up indicate that the Religious Right has lost none of its political punch. If anything, these groups are becoming more extreme and outlandish in their demands.

And, sadly, they seem to be a permanent fixture in this country -- much to the detriment of political discourse in America.