As a lifelong Republican (until I re-registered as an independent voter in 2006), as someone who in the 1970s and eighties -- along with my late father Francis Schaeffer -- was a part of the formation of the religious right, as someone who worked to get John McCain elected in the 2000 Republican primaries, as someone who avidly supports Obama for the presidency... let me give you my two cents worth on the eve of the Republican defeat and Democratic Party victory as to how and why this happened.
The Republicans and Democrats both have a lunatic fringe. The far left and far right always make more noise than their actual numbers represent. Sensible leaders of the major political parties discount that noise and govern more or less from the center. When the fringe gains too much sway and tilts the party to far to the right or left, the party suffers defeat.
Since the 1970s and in particular the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling on abortion, the vocal minority of the far right of the Republican Party has fused with the far right of the evangelical movement. The evangelicals (and I spent my life as one until 1985 when I dropped out), are not a monolithic block. The evangelicals just like everyone else, are all over the map ideologically and politically. However, as with the fringes of the political parties the evangelical movement has its own far right and ultra-fundamentalist wing. These folks have taken over the power centers of American Protestant evangelical religion.
The so-called mainline denominations have been in retreat since the 1950s and all the sound and fury has been coming from fundamentalists of various denominational affiliations. To understand what has happened to the Republican Party you have to understand that the fundamentalists have, by and large, taken over the evangelical movement which itself then fused with the Republican Party.
Aside from the fact that in Obama the Democrats have the best presidential candidate to run since FDR, the reason the Republicans are about to be utterly rejected by the majority of American voters is because of what the Republican Party has been trying to do since the Reagan era: appease its far, far religious right.
The latest episode has been the nomination of Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate. The only reason she was nominated was to throw a sop to the fundamentalist/evangelical/religious right, the so-called base without which and no Republican can win these days, or so it has been thought.
The focus of the Republican Party on economic and foreign policy issues, the economy, military preparedness and a generally libertarian laissez-faire view of the world has, as it were, been replaced by the "religious ethics" of what I'll call the fabled SNL Church Lady's older, stricter, uglier, dumber and terminally self-righteous big sister. This humorless desiccated hag has remade the Republican image as the anti-everything party.
The Republican Party has lost the hearts and minds of reasonable Americans of all faiths and ideologies. Independent voters, young people, black people, Hispanics... the list goes on, and now includes even most white men (like me), most white women, in fact most everybody has left the Republicans. Who stayed? The sorts of people who believe that the Earth is 6000 years old, that dinosaurs roamed the Earth with men, that Senator Obama is "a Arab," that President Bush was correct in thinking that it was "God's will" that we go to war with Iraq, that torture of prisoners is OK, that Senator Obama is a Muslim, that the problem with the American economy is what little remains of government regulation of our banking and financial institutions, that freedom equals being allowed to go to gun shows where an eight-year-old is allowed to fire an Uzi submachine gun and shoot himself in the head...
The choice for the Republicans, in the face of their impending overwhelming defeat, is clear: is the Republican Party going to become the permanent refuge for stupid people or will it change and stop catering to the village idiots?
One reason the country is turning to Senator Obama is that we believe Senator McCain has sold his soul to the know-nothing lowest common denominator Republican/fundamentalist/far right crowd. The very people he was denouncing in the 2000 primaries as "agents of intolerance" are the people he tried to appease by nominating Palin, a person who has been associating with the Alaska secessionist party, someone who had a public exorcism performed over her, to protect her from "witches," a woman who questioned whether human beings have anything to do with global warming and who believes in the imminent return of Christ, and is a card-carrying member of one of the wackiest offshoots of America's melding of religion and politics: the so-called Christian Zionist movement that backs the State of Israel, not for political but for tangled religious reasons to do with the return of Christ, the Rapture and the "End Of Days." This is who McCain chose! And this is the woman who has been hailed as the new "Esther" by the fundamentalists who believe that she will do for fundamentalist Christians what the Old Testament Biblical hero Esther did for the people's of ancient Israel; be ordained by God to save them!
It has taken an economic collapse, more than 4000 American war dead in an unnecessary war (Iraq), a second war we seem to be losing (Afghanistan), a meltdown of our educational system, the besmirching of our name internationally, eight years of being "led" by a born-again president who turned out to be literally unfit to govern, to finally wake the American people up to the fact that turning your government over to people motivated by fundamentalist religious conviction and/or motivated to appease fundamentalists, is an extraordinarily bad idea.
Combine all of the above with the fact that another cranky and in a way even weirder and more dangerous extreme right minority, the neoconservatives, has been cynically using and abusing the religious Republican fringe and fundamentalist base for their own purposes, and you complete the picture of disaster. The aim of the neoconservatives has been to extend and empower what they view as the imperial "destiny" of United States as interpreted through the lens out of American exceptionalism.
The neoconservatives are too worldly to believe that God has ordained American exceptionalism but they are happy to tell the rubes whatever they want to hear. The neoconservatives are our American equivalent of the old-style European empire builders such as Napoleon, who were glad to use popes or priests to bless their secular conquests when it was useful. The neoconservatives believe in power for power's sake and would love to live in a world where everyone besides the United States is reduced to being as powerless as Belgium.
Most Americans do not want to live in a country perpetually at war with the world nor in a nation whose policies are driven by literalistic Biblical interpretation or insane imperial ambition. And that's why, amongst many other reasons, the Republicans will not only lose but have destroyed themselves for the foreseeable future.
In becoming a party of rubes, the party of eternal war (and therefore eternal debt!), the party that despises the big cities, hates the universities, says that one part of America is more patriotic than other parts, in fact hates (and fears) anyone not like them or worse yet, is suspicious of anyone smarter or more educated than they are, the Republicans have doomed themselves to be the party of stupid, fearful and close-minded bigots. And since most Americans are not stupid or bigots and would rather be led by educated, informed and worldly wise leaders the Republicans now have a choice: rebuild the Republican Party catering to the best America has the offer or disappear.
The rest of us can just count ourselves lucky, dare I say blessed, that Senator Obama has emerged as our next likely president at the very time when what we need most is a reasonable, intelligent, kind, and unflappable leader not driven by ideology but by the desire to govern well and with compassion. The Republicans have led us to the brink. May I say without any any intended irony; thank God for Obama.
Frank Schaeffer is the author of CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back. Now in paperback