BOSTON — In retrospect, it was probably not the best way to reassure the faithful. When James Dobson, child psychologist turned political kingmaker, rose to speak at the Values Voter Summit dinner, he first complained about media reports that the religious right was dead. Then he cheerily announced, "Welcome to the morgue."
Yes, well, not yet. The much-reported news from last weekend's gathering was that the honchos of the religious right are still wanted — dead or alive — by the Republican candidates.
The candidates came, they saw, they pandered, though they didn't exactly conquer. Mitt Romney flashed his family credentials so brightly you could hardly see his flip-flop footwear. Fred Thompson promised his first hour in the Oval Office would be spent praying. Mike Huckabee claimed, "You are my roots." And even Rudolph Giuliani offered the lame reassurance that "you have absolutely nothing to fear from me."
If the summitgoers did not meet in a morgue, they left in mourning for a candidate to call their own. But you don't have to be a political pathologist to see the real message from the meeting. There are signs of ideological rigor mortis among the old guard.
Think back to 2004, the Year of the Values Voter. The religious right claimed credit for Bush's re-election and grabbed the word "values" the way they'd grabbed the word "life."
Headlines pronounced, "Faith, Values Fuel Win" and "Moral Values Drove Bush Victory." It was the morals, stupid. It was the culture wars, dummy. This notion was driven by exit polls that let voters pick Iraq, the economy or moral values as their No. 1 issue.
Anyone who considered war to be a moral issue was ignored. Anyone who wasn't a member of the anti-abortion, anti-gay, fundamentalist right was, literally, de-valued.
Two years later, despair over the war and dismay about scandals had widened the morals agenda. And Democrats had narrowed the so-called God gap.
But at the Family Research Council gathering, Dobson's famous child-raising book, "Dare to Discipline," must have been required reading. This was a gathering of emeriti from Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly to Virtue Gambler Bill Bennett to Spurned Justice Bob Bork. They were grooving to the oldies, from abortion to gay marriage.
From the sound of the panels — "The Impact of the Homosexual Agenda" — and the look of the T-shirts — "Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date" — you would think that nothing was changing among social conservatives. But many conservatives are taking steps across old borders.
Step One: The environment. Never mind that Dobson once described global warming worries as a vast distraction from the great moral issues. For the past several years, evangelicals have sounded more like environmentalists.
Last summer, five prominent religious leaders, including Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, and five scientists, including James McCarthy of Harvard, toured Alaska together. As Cizik said, "We dare to imagine a world in which science and religion cooperate — minimizing our differences about how creation got started, to work together to reverse its degradation."
Step Two: Family. The "values voters" applauded the presidential veto against extending children's health care. A pamphlet explaining where the candidates stand on "Issues that Matter Most to Your Family" listed exactly two issues: abortion and gay marriage.
But on family matters, there are some unusual connections between former untouchables such as Roberta Combs, head of the Christian Coalition, and Joan Blades of both MoveOn.org and MomsRising. "At the end of the day, it's all about family," says Combs, who favors paid family medical leave, an idea that was once anathema to conservatives.
Step Three: Liberty. At the summit, OB-GYN and congressman Ron Paul put forth his most strident anti-abortion views. But on questions about overreaching government from torture to surveillance, this maverick reads like a chapter from progressive Naomi Wolf's dire book, "The End of America." The right's American Freedom Agenda and the left's American Freedom Campaign sound as similar as their names in alarm over assaults on the Constitution.
I'm not suggesting that social conservatives and liberals are going to be singing in the same choir or chorus. The left got a three-year head start on the search for common ground. Now some on the right are moving onto this terrain.
This leaves the "values voters" leadership boogieing like it did in 2004, stuck on its elevated summit far above the madding crowd ... of voters.
The only thing that seemed to rouse its pre-Halloween spirits was the specter of that wicked witch, Hillary Clinton. The big laugh line of the weekend? "We put our 'Run, Hillary, Run' bumper stickers on the front of our cars."
Come to think of it, this is starting to look like a cold case.
Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is email@example.com.