Dick Cheney’s religious doubters

20050120 5 4 p44290 334 515hIn case you have been on another planet for the past few days, 37-year-old Mary Cheney, the high-profile gay daughter of the Vice President Dick Cheney, is pregnant. The mainstream press accounts all note that she is expecting this child “with” Mary Poe, her partner of 15 years, but journalists are allowing the couple a rare zone of privacy and are not exploring the precise meaning of the word “with.”

Unless I missed something, The Washington Post broke the story in a breezy, chatty way that treated it more as a people story rather than a move in the field of political combat.

But that tone didn’t last long.

Since then, one of the key questions for the mainstream press has, of course, been the degree to which people on the Religious Right will or will not live up to their barbarian reputations by criticizing this development in the big tent of the modern Republican Party. The ususal suspects must be quoted saying the usual things. Thus, there is this totally predictable section in the New York Times report:

Focus on the Family, a Christian group that has provided crucial political support to President Bush, released a statement that criticized child rearing by same-sex couples.

“Mary Cheney’s pregnancy raises the question of what’s best for children,” said Carrie Gordon Earll, the group’s director of issues analysis. “Just because it’s possible to conceive a child outside of the relationship of a married mother and father doesn’t mean it’s the best for the child.”

In 2004, Ms. Cheney worked on the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, which won in part because of the so-called values voters who were drawn to the polls by ballot measures seeking to ban same-sex marriage.

As I said, the coverage has been quite predictable — with one major exception.

To be blunt about it, the lede on the Los Angeles Times story by reporter Johanna Neuman struck me as really bizarre, if not dead wrong. Nevertheless, it did offer a clue as to why — to grab a blunt metaphor — some of the religious dogs that the mainstream press expected to be barking about this story are not barking to the degree one would expect.

Here is the opening of this story, which ran with the headline “A pregnant pause in right wing — Social conservatives remain silent or temper their criticism about news that Cheney’s gay daughter is expecting.”

WASHINGTON — No Republican in Washington is more beloved by social conservatives than Vice President Dick Cheney, who with his wife, Lynne, has backed and breathed every issue dear to them for six tumultuous years.

News that Cheney’s lesbian daughter, Mary, is pregnant has therefore touched a nerve, as advocates for conservative values struggle to reconcile their loyalty to the Cheneys with their visceral opposition to same-sex relationships — and particularly to raising a child without a father.

Here is the key question. What is a “social conservative”?

I assume that this is a person who is conservative on the hot-button social issues that have served as fault lines in American politics in recent decades, primarily issues linked to — warning, Catholic language ahead — the “sanctity of human life,” the definition of marriage and, to some degree, public education. The opposite of a “social” conservative is an “economic,” a “business,” a “country club” or even a libertarian conservative.

So is a “social” conservative the same thing as a “moral” or even “religious” conservative? I would assume so.

But there’s the rub. The “cultural” and “social” conservatives that I know are not big fans of Dick Cheney, although they may admire his wife. They consider him the natural leader of the win-at-any-cost Karl Rove-ite Republicans who, if anything, are probably laughing behind closed doors at the naive religious wackos who think that “values issues” can trump matters of military might, taxes, business and foreign policy in real life (as opposed to election spinning).

I know that there are some win-at-any-cost religious conservatives and they may have viewed Cheney as someone who — because it was in his interest — would back their cause. Some of them may have defended him whenever he was attacked. But I have never sensed that many of them trusted the guy or thought his interest in their issues was sincere. Cheney is a cold-eyed political realist, a Rush Limbaugh man more than a James Dobson man.

There’s the faith-based wing of the GOP and then there’s the, well, strictly-politics wing.

If what I am saying is accurate, then you can expect a mixed, confused or muted response to this Cheney news from folks in the pews of the religious conservatives. After all, he really isn’t their man. The chapel at the GOP country club isn’t used all that often and most of them know it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Carl

    Remember, Cheney dropped the f-bomb on the Senate floor. That means he must use it regularly enough not to think twice before using it there. That means, he’s no fundie.

  • MattK

    “The chapel at the GOP country club isn’t used all that often…”

    Tmatt, great line.

  • Larry Rasczak

    ” as advocates for conservative values struggle to reconcile their loyalty to the with their visceral opposition to same-sex relationships??”


    How about “..advocates for conservative values struggle to reconcile their loyalty to the Cheneys with the fact they have gotten next to nothing from the last years of a GOP House, a GOP Senate, and a GOP White House”? Hows that for a story?

    W vetoed Stem Cells… and after a revolt from the right that stopped just short of angry mobs of peasants with pitchforks and torches they got Harret Miers nomination sunk and John Roberts put in her place.

    Beyond that… well gee, religious Republicans apparently have the beloved Lynne Cheny on their side… reminds me of my instructor who, having been reminded that Luxembourg was indeed a full member of NATO said “Yes men, now you can all sleep safely now knowing that Luxembourg is on our side.”

    I mean wow… the wife of the Vice-President… Yes she holds no office herself, and on the social circle she has to play second fiddle to someone who’s most controversial opinion is “it’s good to learn to read.” She’s married to a guy who’s only Constitutional duty is “try not to die”. A guy who’s brief consist of “go to the bunker at Mount Weather when we tell you”, and “read these reports from, NASA, the only people known who can make space exploration dull.” A man who’s best known accomplishment in the past six year has been confusing a fellow hunter with a quail! Wow there’s some real earthshaking power for you! Truly the unstoppable juggernaut of theocracy has begun to roll!

    If you see a muted response to this I don’t think it has anything much to do with Dick Cheney. I think if you see a muted response to this from the right wing press it is because grown up people can distinguish between public figures and their adult children. People realize that parents can’t control what (or who) their adult children decide to do.

    Pity the left wing press could not extend the same courtesy to the Bush Twins. Just think how things would be different if back in the summer of 2001 one tenth of the time and money spent investigating Jenna and Barbra’s lame attempt at underage drinking had instead gone into looking at Osama Bin Laden’s declaration of war on the USA, or the rumors of mysterious foriegn students who were attending flight schools but weren’t interested in learning how to land the plane.

  • http://www.minor-ripper.blogspot.com MinorRipper

    Great post, thanks. Don’t know if you’ve seen this David Letterman clip with Cheney in it, but its pretty funny.

  • Harris

    I suspect the reason for the identification of the “social conservatives” with Cheney lies in two areas. First, both affirm the Rovian win-at-any-cost style. Second, the social conservatives have been strong supporters of the war, and the most aggressive supporter of the war has been…. VP Cheney.

    It is not that the VP is one of them, it is that he is an ally. Their silence at his daughter only further highlights the political aspect of their advocacy of certain hot button cultural issues (and not, incidentally, preventing the more substantive moral position to be fully or even fairly heard).

  • Michael

    I agree with Terry that Cheney isn’t who I think of when I think of social conservatives. I actually sense he is probably a little embarrassed by them. OTOH, Cheney has been solidly pro-life his entire political career and Lynne’s career as a cultural scold undoubtedely warmed the hearts of social conservatives.

    As Harris points out, social conservatives have provided cover for the Iraq War and much of the Bush-administration’s behavior and we know that no one warms hearts at true-believer conservative groups than Cheney.

    So I guess it’s not a surprise that the LA Times said what it did. Social conservatives are a bit hard to pin down and since they have a tendancy to sweep in issues like war, tax cuts, and anything anti-liberal onto their agenda, it’s difficult to figure out where their agenda begins and ends.

  • Martha

    The deafening silence could also be because those relgious social conservatives have figured out that when a reporter for a paper who normally wouldn’t give you the time of day rushes up to you breathlessly asking for your undying words of wisdom on a topic where religion/faith is involved, they sort of want a controversial opinion that they can make lots of lovely ‘shock! horror!’ headlines out of to sell their papers, and this time the durn conservatives are not playing but keeping their mouths shut.

    Being ‘conservative’ in relgion doesn’t necessarily mean being so stupid you can’t see a nice freshly-dug pitfall right in front of your nose waiting for you to fall in? Just maybe? Conceiveably? Perhaps?

  • Martha

    *sigh* I meant, of course, ‘religion’ and ‘religious’, not ‘relgion’ and ‘relgious’. whatever they may be.

    Might make a nice bumper sticker motto, though: ‘I’m relgious, not religious’.

  • Jennifer Emick

    “issues linked to the sanctity of human life”

    That’s a wee bit loaded, don’t you think? Social liberals are just as concerned with ‘sancticity of life,’ they simply have a different focus.

    When you mean abortion (or any related issue), you should be specific, rather than using such biased language.

  • Jerry

    I agree with Jennifer. The use of stereotype catch phrases in the media and elsewhere is unfortunate. People can be against abortion but also libertarian and thus in favor of using other means than the law to disourage abortion. People can be for the death penality and against abortion. People can believe that the soul does not enter the body at conception but later on. What “social conservatism” means depends on the culture and religion.

    Natural media sensationalism promotes bipolar fights over issues since that attracts attention and thus bodies to consume advertising. I was a bit surprised at all the coverage this story received, but I should not have been. To me, it’s not news what people choose to do with their private lives, it’s gossip, and should be relegated to the gossip columns, with one exception.

    In this case, the exception is to discuss how their decision to have a child might have ramifications because of Virginia’s laws denying many rights to non-married partners. From this point of view, what I read seemed to be pretty straight forward in reporting what might happen under certain circumstances.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    No apology from me on this one.

    My use of Catholic language was deliberate, to try to refer to people who are very consistent on life issues as the ones who would be most alienated from Cheney and the business right.

    I will edit it to make my intention more clear.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “one tenth of the time and money spent investigating Jenna and Barbra’s lame attempt at underage drinking”

    Obviously not someone who remembers the press savaging of Chelsea Clinton.

  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    Perhaps some religious leaders are having second thoughts about hitching their good name to the Bush administration as its poularity sinks to new lows (30% in the latest poll.) How to bring the world to Christ when the world so obviously loathes President Bush and one’s church is so closely associated with him? Thankfully, this is not my problem.

  • c.tower

    My sense is that the religous right really doesn’t want to talk about this at all- probably don’t want to even aknowledge the existence of Mary Cheney.They know there’s nothing they can say about her that won’t make them look bad- it’s just a matter of whether they want to be seen as bigots or hypocrites. Of course, by saying nothing, they tend to look like both…

  • http://www.mainstreamlibertarian.com Eric Dondero

    You know we libertarian Republicans have long suspected VP Cheney has strong libertarian inclinations. His voting record while a Congressman was one of the most libertarian of anyone. And he comes from one of the top 3 libertarian states in the Nation. Wyoming is all about “leave me alone.”

    Maybe he’s just finally “coming out of the closet” as a libertarian Republican?

    I don’t think Cheney’s biggest problem is with his daughter on the image front. It’s more with him. He’s a super nice guy, he’s just way too much of an old fart. He’s overweigh, in ill health and sort of dour and grey. I know that’s kind of harsh, but voters want more Britney Spears/Hollywood pizzaz in their candidates these days. Look at all the Obama crap.

    We Republicans, save Arnold and former Sen. Thompson of TN, are absolutely horrible about that.

    I’d like to see President Bush do something wild and crazy in his last two years, like replace Dick with his wife Lynn as the VP. That’d be so easy to do. It would make so much sense. And it would be historic and groundbreaking. Imagine how much mainstream vote we could win back to the GOP by that one simple move.

    Eric at http://www.mainstreamlibertarian.com

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Michael, given that you do not appear especially conservative, how do you speak authoritatively on what warms the hearts of social conservatives and what issues they tend to “sweep in”? I’m not trying to pick on you. I just find it interesting whenever anyone in the press speaks authoritatively on groups of which they are not a part. I see a lot of that on this board and, of course, in press articles.

    Here in Flyover Country, most of us social conservatives couldn’t care less about Cheney’s daughter or most of the other people and events that fascinate the press and the bloggers in D.C. and NYC. We care about our faith, our families, our neighborhoods, and our communities…with politics far, far down on the list. Frankly, I don’t think that the press on the coasts has a clue about who we are, nor do I think that they really care to find out. Every few years when there is an election, however, they come to Ohio and pontificate on what makes us tick and how we will vote. It’s quite amusing. 2004 was a particular highlight, as the TV talking heads parachuted in and then tried to speak about individual Ohio counties as if all of their best friends lived there.

    When I lived just outside the Beltway for 12 years, I, like many other people in the D.C. area, got caught up in politics. When the Clarence Thomas hearings took place, my wife and I watched for hours, riveted to the TV. I remember calling my sister in Ohio and asking her if she was watching the hearings. Her response was no, she was going to a sports event at the local high school.

    Amen to that.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Don’t four of the five contributors to this blog live and work in the D.C. area? How often do reporters based in D.C. or NYC travel outside their home base?

  • Peter

    It’s very odd to me that the consensus here seems to be that there has been little or no reaction from the right to the announcement of Mary Cheney’s pregnancy, because since the announcement, there has been a lot of reported reactions — many of them just the overblown semi-hysterical sort of thing people here are saying aren’t happening.

    Do a news search on the topic, and you will find all sorts of reaction.

  • Steve

    You owe no apology to anyone for your use of “Catholic language,” and I am not even Catholic. You were just calling it what it is and not watering it down for the pro-choice crowd. Bottom line, if you value a choice more than a life then you value the sanctity of human life. No criticism here, in fact I applaud you for keeping it real.

  • Steve

    Oops, I meant to say “if you value a choice more than a life then you don’t value the sanctity of human life.”

  • Peggy

    I never thought of Cheney as a social conservative, his wife’s culture warrior credentials notwithstanding. VP Cheney was always wishy-washy about the gay “marriage” business. TMatt, you’re right to take note of the LA Times analytical error.

  • Maureen

    I’m sure Ms. Cheney knows exactly what the various conservative positions on her pregnancy are. And we know she knows. So what’s the point of opining?

  • sarcasmo

    Country club Republicans tend to be the opposite of the libertarian variety, in my experience…And us fiscal conservatives didn’t have many corruption issues compared to the other varieties, Ron Paul may be a lonely vote and may be ignored by the biased media, but he’s still there voting against big government stupidity.

  • Former Liberal Non-Political

    I see this kind of reporting and it happens all too frequently.
    It’s all to easy to find one or two bad apples in the bunch and then tar and feather the whole group, then shout hypocrisy.

    In my former life I did it all the time. If you try having any standards and fall short you can always look at the “hypocrit” and laugh. The later when you abandon any standards at all, you laugh harder because you tell yourself no one can live up to the high standards.

    The truth is we all are hypocrites in one way or the other. The difference is that some of us at least will agree with God that there is a standard and that we fall short of it. (I John).
    We are willing to call sin, sin, while the world laughs at us for trying and then applauds each other for falling to new depths.

    BTW. Dick Cheney is NO friend of Social Conservatives in my book and is the Bad Cop to Bush’s good Cop.

    It is entirely possible for someone to be anti-war, Socially Conservative AND Fiscally Conservative. The Bible calls all believers to be good stewards of their money.

  • Bruce L

    Let’s be honest for one minute, real Christians don’t : start wars , lie , deceive, embezzle money, neglect the poor, and behave like materialistic criminals.
    Let’s stop calling the “right” and Republicans by the name “Christians” , because they’re quite the opposite of what Christianity SHOULD be.
    Bush is a dangerously naive dolt , and Cheney is just plain despicable.