The walls and shelves in Gary Bauer's new office are bare, since he only left the presidential campaign trail a few primaries ago.
But his e-mailbox is bursting and his fax machine is still humming, after his endorsement of Sen. John McCain's long-shot insurrection.
Bauer has been hearing from Christians "in Timbuktoo" who hope he spends eternity in a sizzling location -- ASAP. But he has been just as stunned by the reaction of Beltway insiders, folks he has known since his Reagan White House days. They accuse him of being a schismatic heretic. Apparently, many GOP strategists believe the so-called Religious Right is exactly what journalists and Democrats say it is -- a voting bloc that obeys a few all-powerful masters.
Read Bauer's lips: There is no monolith.
"I can't tell you how many times Republican leaders have said, 'GARY, where are these people going to GO? Wait a minute, you don't think they'll go vote for AL GORE?'," he said, mimicking a dismissive tone of voice.
"I say, 'Yes, some of them will.' There's this idea that evangelicals are conservative across the board, when, in fact, many are working class and lower middle-class people who ... would be liberal on some economic issues," added Bauer, who grew up in blue-collar Newport, Ken. "If they go to the polls thinking about abortion and gay rights, they'll vote Republican. But if they go to the polls wondering who's going to preserve their social security and who wants to make sure they have legal redress if their HMO mistreats them, then they may vote Democratic."
Politicos can't jam millions of white Protestants into a box plastered with a "Religious Right" label, said Bauer. Meanwhile, morally and culturally conservative voters also can be found among traditional Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Hispanics (Catholic and Protestant), black evangelicals, Jewish conservatives and in other pews.
It's also crucial to remember that the media hellfire that followed Gov. George W. Bush's South Carolina win didn't take place in a vacuum. It followed two remarkable years of bitter debate about the role that Christian leaders, especially clergy, should play in politics.
Focus on the Family patriarch James Dobson kicked things off in 1998 by accusing the GOP establishment of betraying Christian voters and said it might be time to abandon the party, even if that meant handing Democrats the White House and Congress. Dobson noted that he could not bring himself to vote for Sen. Bob Dole.
A year later, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation wrote a much-quoted epistle arguing that while religious activists have won a few political victories, they have done little to cleanse the "ever-wider sewer" of American culture. His bottom line: It's sinful to put too much faith in politicians, including Republicans.
Then two former Moral Majority leaders wrote a controversial book in which they said ministers and the ministries that they lead should flee partisan politics and focus on the spiritual needs of their flocks and of nonbelievers. Journalist Cal Thomas and the Rev. Ed Dobson of Grand Rapids, Mich., stressed that they believe many Christians must be active in the political arena -- but not clergy.
Now, Bauer's open rejection of Bush -- the establishment candidate -- has provoked a fiery rebuke from James Dobson, including digs about McCain's personal life. Clearly, Dobson and his former Family Research Council colleague are not on the same map.
The ground is moving. But while Bauer stressed that is in full-time politics to stay, he isn't ready to say that the church and other religious institutions should be silent when America's hottest political debates veer into religious territory.
"All of the issues that really matter -- whether its racial reconciliation, rebuilding the family, how we treat the poor, setting a place at the table for all of our children -- center on profoundly moral questions," he said. "If they're going to be dealt with without having American citizens who come from a faith perspective leading the charge, then we're unlikely to come up with the right answers."
However, he said he has seen more evidence lately of "politics transforming Christians, than of Christians transforming politics."