02/11/2011 01:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Religious Right's Boycott of CPAC is a Game Changer, If Dems Don't Ignore It

Imagine that Democrats were holding our first big political event of the year, and virtually every one of our major candidates for the upcoming election was planning to attend. Then imagine the event was being boycotted by the NAACP and all the unions. Think we'd have a problem? Well that is pretty much what is happening right now at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), where the groups boycotting represent between 40 percent to 60 percent of the GOP base (see below) depending on how you define the religious right.

This creates an incredible opportunity for Democrats and progressives to demoralize the GOP base, force its candidates and political leaders into very difficult positions heading into 2012 and start winning back moderate faith voters who have been drifting back toward Republicans the last few years.

As I have argued before, the rise of the Tea Party marked a major shift in conservative circles and one that would eventually lead to rupture with the religious right. The Tea Party was never a unified movement, and many of its leaders tried very hard (often successfully) to cover up divisions and bridge the gap between the libertarian and Christian right wings.

The media and many progressives do not understand what motivates conservative Christians and have accepted the narrative put forward by GOP leaders. They have largely ignored this tension and assumed that the Tea Party was just a new version of the old right. But the fiscal conservative/small government/libertarian wing of the conservative movement, which the Tea Party has empowered, share virtually no values in common with the religious right.

The majority of Tea Party members do not consider themselves a part of the religious right and less than a quarter of the Christian right identifies as being in the Tea Party. Add to that the fact that the majority of Tea Party members hold positions Christian conservatives consider "pro-gay and pro-choice," and it shouldn't be hard to see why these tensions that have been simmering just under the surface since the time of Reagan are now coming to a head on the Hill and most prominently this past week at CPAC.

Christian right groups such as Family Research Council, the America Family Association, Concerned Women of America and many more have been joined by the largest conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, in condemning CPAC, largely over the inclusion this year of the GOP gay group, GOProud. The gay issue is clearly important and has gotten most of the attention, but we also shouldn't underestimate the importance of the anti-Muslim sentiment and hatred on the Christian right for Grover Norquist. The headlining blog on Red State yesterday was about the takeover of ACU (the group that runs CPAC) by the Muslim brotherhood, and there have been grumblings for a while by Christian conservatives about Grover Norquist's Muslim money ties (ties made all the more suspect by the fact he's married to a Muslim).

The significance of the CPAC split is not that it is proof of any fall by the religious right. Remember, they still represent between 40 percent to 60 percent of GOP votes each cycle based on an average of '04 to '10 exit polls, and they control a communication empire that spends approximately $1 billion annually on communication and organizing. The story here is schism, and Democrats and progressive cannot sit on our hands and just watch this unfold.

We need to be drawing as much attention to this issue as possible to make sure it gets coverage, that the GOP base hears about it and wrestles with the implications, and that reporters will be pushing GOP candidates to pick sides and comment. We need to be pushing for questions of all the GOP hopefuls speaking at CPAC about whether they are concerned their failure to join the religious right boycott could come back to haunt them. Do those candidates agree with statements being made by CPAC sponsors (i.e., GOProud) that all the "real" conservative groups and groups that matter to the conservative movement are still sponsoring CPAC?

One final point: for all those rightly concerned about the inexcusable hearings being planned by Rep. King into un-American activities of Muslims, if we really want to shut down this political stunt by Rep. King, it's not going to be liberal groups that will do it. The only folks who can keep this racist hearing from happening are GOP leaders. The CPAC blow-up has created an opportunity because if the hearings are supposedly about unearthing political infiltration of radical Muslim groups in American politics, Democrats should promise to show up and ask questions about CPAC and all the GOP candidates who showed up at an event many Republicans and conservative thinkers claim is funded in large part by the Islamic Brotherhood. The press would love that angle and eat the story up, and it would highlight the hypocrisy of the GOP hate-mongering that will demonize and exclude Muslims until the point where Muslims give millions to GOP events -- and there would be a lot of powerful Republicans who wouldn't want that story.

The right and GOP have traditionally been much better than the left on message discipline and clarity. That is falling apart at CPAC, and if we can push on those differences, the right's foot soldiers will lose direction or turn on themselves as the hypocrisy of many of GOP arguments and coalitions is made clear (e.g., everything Christian conservatives want from politics is posited on MORE government and more intervention in people's lives).

This CPAC split could very well mark one of the most significant political events this decade. We know GOP and conservative leaders are scrambling to try to seal up these cracks and keep their libertarian/neocon/Christian right ship afloat. Let's not make it easier for them by staying on the sidelines.