BOSTON -- In retrospect, it was probably not the best way to reassure the faithful. When James Dobson, child psychologist turned political kingmaker, rose to speak at the Values Voter Summit dinner, he first complained about media reports that the religious right was dead. Then he cheerily announced, "Welcome to the morgue."
Yes, well, not yet. The much-reported news from last weekend's gathering was that the honchos of the religious right are still wanted by the Republican candidates.
The candidates came, they saw, they pandered, though they didn't exactly conquer. Mitt Romney flashed his family credentials so brightly you could hardly see his flip-flop footwear. Fred Thompson promised his first hour in the Oval Office would be spent praying. Mike Huckabee claimed, "You are my roots." And even Rudolph W. Giuliani offered the lame reassurance that "you have absolutely nothing to fear from me."
There are signs of ideological rigor mortis among the old guard. Think back to 2004, the "Year of the Values Voter." The religious right claimed credit for President Bush's re-election and grabbed the word "values" the way they'd grabbed the word "life."
Headlines pronounced, "Faith, Values Fuel Win" and "Moral Values Drove Bush Victory." This notion was driven by exit polls that let voters pick Iraq, the economy or moral values as their No. 1 issue. Anyone who considered war to be a moral issue was ignored.
Two years later, despair over the war and dismay about scandals had widened the morals agenda. And Democrats had narrowed the so-called God gap.
From the sound of the panels at the Family Research Council gathering ("The Impact of the Homosexual Agenda") and the look of the T-shirts ("Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date), you would think that nothing was changing among social conservatives. But many conservatives are taking steps across old borders.
Step One: the environment. Never mind that Mr. Dobson once described global warming worries as a vast distraction from the great moral issues. For the past several years, evangelicals have sounded more like environmentalists.
Step Two: family. On family matters, there are some unusual connections between former untouchables such as Roberta Combs, head of the Christian Coalition, and Joan Blades of MoveOn.org. "At the end of the day, it's all about family," says Ms. Combs, who favors paid family medical leave, an idea that was once anathema to conservatives.
Step Three: liberty. At the summit, Rep. Ron Paul put forth his most strident anti-abortion views. But on questions about overreaching government, from torture to surveillance, this maverick reads like a chapter from progressive Naomi Wolf's dire book, The End of America.
I'm not suggesting that social conservatives and liberals are going to be singing in the same choir or chorus. The left got a three-year head start on the search for common ground. Now some on the right are moving onto this terrain.
This leaves the "values voters" leadership boogieing like they did in 2004, stuck on their elevated summit far above the madding crowd ... of voters.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.