Ever get the feeling you've been had?

Many religious conservatives who placed so much faith in George W. Bush are stunned and sickened by the way he's run his campaign. I know I am. It's as if he is ashamed of people like me, that the things we care most passionately about are hick opinions, and we are country cousins who have to be suffered with a smile.

Well. After watching the performances of Bush and Dick Cheney in the first two debates, the feeling from where I sit is mutual. But I'm still going to vote for the guys. For religious conservatives, there's no realistic alternative. But whether Bush wins or loses, religious and social conservatism as a political force will go into retreat.

Having been useful to Bush in saving his campaign during the GOP primaries, he discarded religious conservatives like spoiled leftovers stinking up the fridge. He spent the late spring and summer ignoring our issues, chief among them abortion and gay marriage. He hid our leaders at the convention. That's OK, we thought, we know he's really on our side.

But then we got to September, and he still had nothing meaningful to say about these things. A solid majority of Americans opposes partial-birth abortion, a ban on which was overturned by the Supreme Court. Bush mumbles the least he can to support a ban on the procedure, but no more. How hard could it possibly be to attack virtual infanticide, and Al Gore for his support of it?

Then, the Boy Scouts came under harsh assault for their policy of excluding openly gay Scoutmasters. City governments began to defund them. Corporations withdrew financial sponsorship. In New York City, there's a movement afoot to kick them out of the public schools. This is a direct attack on the city's poor minority boys, who live in areas so bad the neighborhood school is one of the only safe places for them.

Where's Mr. Compassionate Conservative? Mute and out of sight. For crying out loud, the Boy Scouts of America are being driven out of decent society, and the Republican standard bearer can't bring himself to defend them and what they stand for. It is tricky, but not all that hard, to stand up for tolerating the Scouts without being homophobic. But this is beyond Bush's abilities.

Days before the first presidential debate, news breaks that Bush is refusing to address the Christian Coalition convention that weekend. He finally sends greetings by videotape--and the delegates took this insult lying down. Can anybody imagine the NAACP being treated this way by a Democratic nominee and not raising hell?

So we get to the Boston debate, and Bush is asked about RU-486, the abortion pill approved that week by the Food and Drug Administration. He gave a stammering, wishy-washy answer that, as Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in a Beliefnet essay, was so mousy it might just as well have come from a centrist supporter of Roe v. Wade.

And again, there wasn't a peep of protest from religious conservatives.

Thursday night in Danville, Ky., Cheney repeated the milquetoast Bush line about RU-486, stating his alleged pro-life convictions in a pro forma way, but plainly telegraphing to independent voters that the Bush-Cheney administration would do nothing serious to end the Roe regime.

And then came the gay marriage bombshell, when Cheney, staking out a position to the left of Joe Lieberman, said the Bush administration wouldn't stand in the way of states that wanted to experiment with gay marriage.

"I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that's appropriate," he said. "...I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into."

Religious conservatives might also have been demoralized by Cheney's refusal to talk about school choice, another important issue to them. And they might have been bummed out by his refusal to make a compelling case for the importance of character in public life, another deep concern of ours. But after his gay-marriage giveaway, those pale by comparison.

Cheney's gay-marriage comments went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. But leaders in the religious conservative camp could talk about little else Friday.

"The Defense of Marriage Act gets 61% of the vote in California, and these guys can't bring themselves to support it," one frustrated Washington activist told me. "Bush isn't even going to get those kinds of numbers in California."

Another fired off a scathing e-mail missive to top Bush lieutenants, but others within the movement who were copied on the letter chastised the sender for taking friendly-fire shots at the general as the war's climax rushes upon us.

That's understandable, but one has to ask: What do religious conservatives get out of a Bush victory anyway? In time-honored Republican fashion, he won't do much of anything legislatively to push for our values, and he will have won by pointedly ignoring our issues. A Bushed-out GOP will effectively send us into internal exile within the party.
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