Conservative columnist Rod Dreher, has an interesting column in today’s USA Today, where he defends the role of religious conservatives in the Republican Party. What’s interesting about the piece is how yet again, a religious conservative paints themselves as the victim and bashes anyone that complains about them as being a stooge of liberals.

But maybe what is more fascinating still is how much these religious conservatives live in a cocoon, thinking that what is popular in GOP circles is what is popular among the whole nation.

Take Dreher’s notion on how important the Religious Right is to the GOP:

Republicans interested in rebuilding the party would be fools to shun us. White evangelicals (and, to a lesser extent, Mass-going Catholics) are the GOP’s backbone. Just more than a third of President Bush’s 2004 vote came from white evangelicals — and they turned out for McCain in comparable numbers. Cut social conservatives loose and you get a GOP that, as blogger Daniel Larison archly puts it, is “the party of all the remaining Episcopalians, Californians and New Yorkers who prefer lower taxes.”

In the opinion of Dreher and others, religious conservatives aren’t just a part of the GOP, but they are the GOP. Take them out, and all you have is a little coalition that couldn’t win dogcatcher.

But Dreher is only focusing on the percentage of white evangelicals that make up the Republican vote. He forgets that there is a wider public out there and the Republicans are losing that vote. Remember those white evangelicals that Dreher says are the “backbone” of the GOP? Well, they are shrinking:

In 2000, according to CNN’s exit polls, 42% of voters claimed to attend church on a weekly basis. That number remained steady in 2004, but dropped to 39% in 2008. 55% of those voters supported McCain in 2008. About 60% of them supported Bush in 2004 and 2000. With most young voters thinking that the church is too involved in politics and incorrect on the issue of homosexuality (most young voters support gay marriage, too), what is the Christian Right to do?

Additionally, religious candidates are increasingly marginalized as regional candidates. With the weird exception of Iowa, Mike Huckabee was only able to win Southern states in the Republican primary season. Sarah Palin’s favorability ratings were only in the positives in the South by the end of the election season. The two of them are religious populists, very appealing to a niche section of the base, but with absolutely no ability to attract independents, Northeasterners, or people on the coasts. Whether one wants to assail them as “elitists” or not, they did just decimate our candidates and we need to appeal to them if we’re going to be a majority party.

And by the way, those elitist jerks were voting for our candidates just a few cycles ago.

Let’s take a look at the youth vote, which Obama won:

voters ages 18 to 29, almost one-fifth of the electorate, went better than 2-to-1 for Obama.

Here, too, the trends in the past couple of elections have been all Democratic. Some of that is because there are more minorities among younger voters; some of it is the lousy economy, and some the opposition to the Iraq War.

But interviews and survey data suggest that another reason is tolerance, and the feeling that on matters like gay rights and race relations, Republicans are out of step. Most young people have no trouble with gay relationships.

Cultural conservatives celebrated that three states, California, Arizona and Florida, voted last month to ban gay marriage. They will learn these were pyrrhic victories much like the anti-immigration measure California Republicans rode to electoral success in 1994, where they won an election and lost a generation.

Research suggests that once young people cast a few votes for one political party, it’s often a lifetime habit.

Did John McCain lose soley because of the Religious Right? No. Dreher is correct that there are a lot of reasons that McCain lost. But the fact is, the Religious Right did play a role in loss nevertheless. Americans still have the whole Terry Schiavo fiasco in their minds, and young people don’t understand why people who claim to be religious are so interested in banning same sex marriage or not allowing women to get an abortion if they are raped, or banning embryonic stem cell research, when a loved one is dealing with Alzheimers or diabetes. Conservatives are correct when they say culture matters; it’s just that the GOP is on the losing side.

Conservatives have long believed that faith has a role in our civic life. I have no problem with that, being a person of faith myself. What is wrong is that American conservatism has held too long to a narrow understanding of faith and has given it too high a place of honor. Religious conservatives seem to only notice their own faith and not realize that we are a multi-religious society. They really believe that the GOP stands for “God’s Own Party” instead of realizing that a sucessful political party has to be willing to reach out to all Americans, even those that may have a different faith or none at all.

The problem with Dreher and others like him is that their conservativism is too myopic. It doesn’t see a need to expand the tent and appeal to the center.

Until that happens, the Republicans will be destined to be a regional party.

Politics The GOP’s “God Problem,” Part Two