Silent guns on Religious Right

Once there was a man who lived in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic.

This is the start of an old sermon illustration, yet one that is relevant after the 2000 White House race and the church-state seminar that surrounded the stem-cell research compromise.

As the story goes, this lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts. Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire.

This rare silence awoke the keeper, who leapt from bed shouting, "What was that sound?"

There has been a similar silence lately in American politics. Insiders are starting to notice the silence of a particular set of big guns. President Bush's strategists seem to have tamed the tongues of some of the most outspoken, and controversial, conservatives -- James Dobson and the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

"I was absolutely amazed that those leaders actually worked quite hard for the Republican ticket and didn't make the kind of headlines that they typically made that would disillusion other voters," noted political analyst John Green of the University of Akron. "Yes, there is a good untold story there."

The movement that outsiders call the "Christian Right" is not a monolith. This is especially true when its leaders try to balance their idealistic stands on moral issues -- such as abortion and stem-cell research -- with the harsh realities of electoral politics.

When it came time to attack the views of progressive evangelicals such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore, these conservatives found it easy to preach similar sermons. Politicos on the left and right grew accustomed to the roar of their sound bites. But how are Dobson, Falwell and Robertson supposed to handle the inevitable ups and downs of their new president, the current born-again occupant of the White House?

"The hard-core pragmatists think that Bush ought to be given time and that only so much can be achieved," explained Green. "The hard-core purists never went along with that strategy -- they were induced to be quiet during the campaign, but they never bought into it."

Nevertheless, the big guns have remained amazingly quiet. This balancing act is starting to get tricky, and conspicuous. The stem-cell decision was a critical moment, with the president working overtime in an attempt to display moral gravitas, while desperately needing a compromise that would help him avoid the fatal Religious Right label in media reports.

The patriarchs of the right faced a similar challenge. They needed to praise the president that they have openly supported, while finessing the fact that he had compromised.

Robertson was the most positive: "I believe that President Bush provided an elegant solution to the thorny issue. The president has balanced the profound ethical concerns of those of us who deplore the wanton destruction of the unborn with the heartfelt concerns of the population who desire legitimate, scientific research."

Falwell expressed concern that Congress might twist this decision. But he hailed it as this president's finest hour, affirming that Bush "remained true to his pro-life commitment by boldly reaffirming his promise to protect unborn children - the most innocent of life." The decision was the "only viable solution to this moral puzzle," said Falwell.

Of the big three, it was Dobson who most openly confessed that Bush had softened the existing ban, by allowing federal funds to be used in research on stem cell lines already derived from embryos destroyed in private labs. "We grieve for the lives of these embryos," Dobson said. "But we are delighted that the government will not take part in killing any more."

But Dobson did deliver the sound bite that the White House needed: "President Bush faced tremendous political pressure to betray his pro-life commitment. He deserves praise from citizens who understand that it is never justified to destroy one life in order to possibly save another."

There was much more that could have been said. Right now, the guns are remarkably quiet.