In energetic 'tea party,' is there room for social conservatives?

The 'tea party' movement coalesces around fiscal responsibility and limited federal government, not bans on abortion or gay marriage. It's an agenda that some say will attract more people to the Republican Party, though it may leave social conservatives wandering in the wilderness.

Jeff Curry/AP
Tea party protesters rally outside a hotel in St. Louis, Mo. before President Obama's arrival last Wednesday. The movement is focused on small government and scaling back spending rather than social issues.

Emergence of the grass-roots “tea party” movement as a major force on the American political right is having a quiet but fundamental effect on the Republican tribe: Social conservatives have been voted off the island.

As fiscal conservatism, epitomized by placard-waving tea party voters, infuses a moribund GOP with new life, Republicans such as Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell – who with the help of fiscal conservatives won the governor's seat last year from the Democrats – are jettisoning their culture warrior armor. This week, in fact, Governor McDonnell extended protections to gay state workers.

Of course, many say tea-party rhetoric emphasizing a basic constitutional framework is code for a return to Christian values these activists see as enshrined in the Constitution by the Founders – a foundation that would seem to give them much in common with social conservatives. One tea-party favorite, Fox News host Glenn Beck, lays down “I believe in God and He is the center of my life" as a key principle in his 9/12 manifesto, which has become a subset of the tea party movement.

But among grass-roots tea party leaders, social issues such as abortion, gay rights, and marijuana legalization are held at arm’s length in favor of fiscal issues that can appeal to independents, Democrats, and, most important, suburban conservatives.

“One reason the Republicans have lost support in the last 10 years is because the highly educated suburbanites who used to vote Republican on fiscal issues are now voting Democratic because they disagree with the hard-edged social-issue approach of many Republicans,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

The 1994 Contract With America specifically pointed out that it “respects the values and shares the faith of the American family.” Today, the wiki-based Contract From America being compiled by the group Tea Party Patriots focuses primarily on issues around the national debt, the role of the Federal Reserve, states’ rights, and the 10th Amendment, which they say limits the reach and scope of federal government.

“At the end of day, [the Contract From America] will offer the biggest tent possible by setting forth 10 to 12 ideas that will really be about fiscal reponsibility, limited government and good governance reform, which we think will enable a number of Democrats to sign onto it,” says Ryan Hecker, a Houston-based lawyer who is organizing the Contract From America by soliciting input from Americans over the Web.

The success of tea party conservatives troubles some on the Christian right, writes

“There’s a libertarian streak in the tea party movement that concerns me as a cultural conservative,” Bryan Fischer, director of Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy at the American Family Association, tells Politico’s Ben Smith.

On the other hand, social conservatives have also begun to seek common ground with tea party groups, saying that unified opposition to President Obama’s signature legislation – healthcare reform and last year’s economic stimulus package – could provide a bridge between the two camps before this fall's election, writes the Los Angeles Times’ Kathleen Hennessey.

"The reason why social conservatives and economic conservatives can play well together ... is the guy who wants to go to church all day just wants to be left alone. So does the guy who wants to play with his gun all day, and the guy who wants to make money all day," Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told the Times.

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