Split in the American Taliban?

Put this on your Technorati watchlist or whatever your preferred radar mechanism might be. Admittedly, it's only a minor fissure at the moment but it could portend a major shift in thinking/policy on the evangelical right.

Dr. James "Spongedob" Dobson of Focus on The Family needs no introduction, but his Colorado Springs neighbor Ted Haggard just might. He's the founding pastor of the 9,000-plus member New Life Church and the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Pastor Ted, as he's known to his flock, is also is part of The Arlington Group, a crew of over 60 leading Christers that regularly chats with White House staff.

In most respects, Haggard's New Life Church is very conservative. At the start of the Iraq War, New Life's World Prayer Center — a global clearinghouse for intercessory prayer — took down all the flags of nations unwilling to take part in the "coalition of the willing."

At any rate, Friday's Denver Post reports that Pastor Ted is breaking ranks with Dr. Dobson on a proposed Colorado ballot measure against gay marriage.

SpongeDob's army is toting a hard homophobic line, seeking an amendment that will outlaw not only gay marriage but civil unions and domestic partnerships as well.

Ted Haggard and the Catholic archdiocese of Denver, on the other hand, are peddling homophobia lite, aiming for an amendment that simply defines "marriage" as between one man one woman.

Now this might seem insignificant, but consider this: Ted Haggard is a major player among evangelicals. (Take a look at Jeff Sharlet's great piece in the May issue Harper's.) And when Pastor Ted talks to the press he sounds, well, not totally awful. Witness:

It's the responsibility of the legislature to decide what they want to do with anyone who wants legal recognition of the way they live, whether it's old spinsters living together, monks in a monastery or gay and lesbian couples. We have a deliberative body elected to answer that question. But marriage is not that.

As anyone who's listened to Focus on The Family speak on the issue knows, they almost never use words like "gay" or "lesbian." My understanding is that the terms legitimize the "lifestyle." From Dobson and company, it's always "homosexual" as that has a more clinical term, reminiscent of the days when one could still find the "condition" in the DSM III. Pastor Ted, obviously, doesn't have a problem with it. Small distinction, but not insignificant.

I'm for full on gay marriage, of course, but I'd rather deal with an opposition willing to compromise on civil unions and domestic partnerships than SpongeDob and his fellow mullahs.

My friend Noel Black of the Colorado Springs's monthly The Toilet Paper has had conversations with Pastor Ted's top lieutenant Rob Brendle, who says New Life's position is not one that accepts homosexuality per se, but believes gays and lesbians have the right to seek equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution in state legislatures. "We're for freedom," he told Black.

If true, this could be good news even if it seems like little more than an internecine squabble among the Fundies.

Will these guys split Stalin-Trotsky style? Well, we can only hope.It's not likely in the short term, but who knows what a few years might bring...