ATLANTA -- Last week, Ralph Reed, once the golden boy of hard-core religious conservatives, was defeated in Georgia's Republican primary for lieutenant governor, his first attempt at elective office. Because he rose to prominence as the cherubic face of the Christian Coalition, his political remains have been autopsied by pundits nationwide, some of whom are speculating that the cause of death was the more general demise of America's theocrats.
But they're wrong. Mr. Reed lost because his hypocrisy on the issue of gambling became too glaring for his ultraconservative constituents to ignore. Although he was recruited by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to work against gambling initiatives in Alabama, the project was largely funded by the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, which wanted to protect its casinos from competition.
His defeat, however, by no means suggests a loss of power for a small group of vocal activists who wish to force all Americans to live according to their benighted religious views. They still have an extraordinary ally in the Oval Office. A day after Mr. Reed's loss, President Bush vetoed a bill supporting federal funding for a broadened program of embryonic stem cell research. The president used his first veto in six years in office to strike down a proposal supported by nearly 70 percent of the country, including many conservatives.
The president's veto means that federal funding will not be available to support research on embryos left over from fertilization procedures, even if parents are willing to donate them for that purpose. Hundreds of thousands of such embryos are stored in fertility clinics around the country; the vast majority of them will eventually be discarded as medical waste. (Apparently, the discarding of those embryos doesn't bother the president nearly as much as using them to find cures for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease would.)
The theocrats thrive. Though they represent only a fraction of the country's voters - indeed, a minority of GOP voters - they are a powerful force in Republican politics, especially in the Deep South. Desperate for their support in his anticipated bid for the presidency, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has kissed the ring (metaphorically) of an icon among the theocrats, the Rev. Jerry Falwell; in May, Mr. McCain gave a speech at Mr. Falwell's Liberty University. Six years ago, Mr. McCain had rightly pegged Mr. Falwell as an "agent of intolerance."
Though they have not yet succeeded in remaking the federal courts in their own image, this small group of extremists has enjoyed significant victories over the last six years. Even as U.S. diplomats and public officials battle the notion that this country is at war with Islam, right-wing fundamentalists in uniform intend to turn the armed forces into a haven for proselytizing. Last year, congressional hearings were held after students at the Air Force Academy complained about overt religious discrimination; the Air Force issued regulations emphasizing "tolerance" and religious freedom.
But Focus on the Family, headed by James Dobson, quietly lobbied the Air Force to weaken its regulations. Officers are once again free to pressure cadets about their religious beliefs.
The theocrats have also intimidated scientists, stalled over-the-counter sales of an emergency contraceptive called Plan B, and used their political connections to get federal funds for their so-called pregnancy resource centers, where they wrongly inform pregnant women that abortions are linked to breast cancer and infertility. Several family planning experts say that same group of rigid ultraconservatives is now working to limit access to contraceptives.
They "are increasingly trying to portray contraceptives as ineffective and trying to redefine some of the most popular and effective methods as abortion - such as birth control pills and emergency contraception," said Cynthia Dailard, senior public policy analyst for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which advocates family planning.
If these Christianists were interested in curbing abortions, they'd support the use of contraceptives. But their goal is to turn back the clock, to bring back the days when women had no control over reproduction. Like right-wing Muslims, they rage against modernity itself.
Don't be fooled by Ralph Reed's defeat. The extremists are still winning.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.