The Conservatives' "Secular Problem"

Today through Saturday, when Republicans and conservatives gather in Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, will they face up to the biggest obstacle preventing them from connecting with voters? Their "secular problem."

Lots of ink has been spilled about how Democrats and liberals suffer from a "religion problem" -- a perceived hostility towards Christianity and religion in general. But Pew Research Center exit poll data from the 2006 midterm elections shows the opposite.

Democrats crushed Republicans among secular voters, broadly defined as those who attend church seldom (favoring Democrats 60% to 38%) or never (67% to 30%). Republicans retained strong support among those who attend church more than weekly. But among those who only go weekly -- the larger portion of the religious vote -- the Republican lead shrunk from 15 points to 7.

In short, Republicans failed to be competitive among secular voters, while Democrats were at least competitive among regular churchgoers. And since the secular vote is roughly equal to the regular churchgoing vote, according to the last several national election exit polls, that means Republicans and their conservative base have a far bigger secular problem than their rivals have a religion problem.

How might the conservative activists conferring in Washington this week address their secular problem?

I can't speak for all secular voters, only myself. But I would suggest it's not an issue of language. Stripping all references of God and faith from conservative political rhetoric would only be dismissed as superficial and pandering. Sincerely conveying how faith shapes one's views, in and of itself, does not turn off most secular voters.

One symbolic act that might be useful would be to have some conservative politicians come out of the closet and announce they are atheists or agnostics. If it was clear that conservatism fully embraced religious diversity, including those who do not worship God, that would allay concerns that conservatism is about installing a soft theocracy.

But symbolism can only go so far. Ultimately, conservatives have to find a way to speak to the substantive concerns of secular voters: low wages, poor health care coverage, energy dependence, destabilizing foreign policy and the imposition of religious beliefs on others.

Unfortunately for conservatives, they essentially ran Congress for the last six years. And voters rejected a conservative Congress that held down the minimum wage, neglected to reform our health care system, kept us addicted to oil, mired us in Iraq, but dropped everything to meddle in the private affairs of Terri Schiavo.

Therein lies the rub for conservatives. It is conservatism itself -- the belief that our government should not be put to work in service of the common good -- that has turned off secular voters, and a considerable number of churchgoing voters.

Democrats and liberals perhaps have work to do to show they can effectively manage government and solidify the trust of voters. But it is clear that voters want their government to get involved. Not to interfere with deeply difficult personal decisions, but to solve difficult public problems like global warming and rising health care costs. If they wanted more hands-off conservative government, they would have kept the last Congress.

Since resolving the conservatives' secular problem would require a considerable revamping of their fundamental ideology, I can't say I have much expectation that the conservative movement will squarely grapple with the issue. But at CPAC this week, the secular problem will certainly be the elephant in the room.

Click here for Bill Scher's liveblogging of CPAC, on behalf of Campaign for America's Future. And check out Wait! Don't Move To Canada for more on religion and politics.