By FRANK RICH
IF we're to believe the reviews, "The Da Vinci Code" is the most exciting summer blockbuster since, well, "Poseidon." But the "Da Vinci Code" marketing strategy is a masterpiece: a perfect Hollywood metaphor for the American political culture of our day.
The Machiavellian mission for the hit-deprived Sony studio was to co-opt conservative religious critics who might depress turnout for a $125-million-plus thriller portraying the Roman Catholic Church as a fraud. To this end, as The New Yorker reported, Sony hired a bevy of P.R. consultants, including a faith-based flack whose Christian Rolodex previously helped sell such inspirational testaments to Hollywood spirituality as "Bruce Almighty" and "Christmas With the Kranks."
Among Sony's ingenious strategies was an elaborate Web site, The Da Vinci Dialogue, which gave many of the movie's prominent critics a platform to vent on the studio's dime. Thus was "The Da Vinci Code" repositioned as a "teaching moment" for Christian evangelists — a bit of hype "completely concocted by the Sony Pictures marketing machine," as Barbara Nicolosi, a former nun and current Hollywood screenwriter, explained to The Times. The more "students" who could be roped into this teaching moment, of course, the bigger the gross.
Ms. Nicolosi remains a vociferous opponent of the film. On her blog she chastises Sony's heavenly P.R. helpers for coaxing "legions of well-meaning Christians into subsidizing a movie that makes their own Savior out to be a sham." But you do have to admire the studio's chutzpah, if the word may be used in this context. It rivals Tom Sawyer's bamboozling of his friends into painting that fence. The Sony scheme also echoes much of the past decade's Washington playbook. Politicians, particularly but not exclusively in the Karl Rove camp, seem to believe that voters of "faith" are suckers who can be lured into the big tent and then abandoned once their votes and campaign cash have been pocketed by the party for secular profit.
Nowhere is this game more naked than in the Jack Abramoff scandal: the felonious Washington lobbyist engaged his pal Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition, to shepherd Christian conservative leaders like James Dobson, Gary Bauer and the Rev. Donald Wildmon and their flocks into ostensibly "anti-gambling" letter-writing campaigns. They were all duped: in reality these campaigns were engineered to support Mr. Abramoff's Indian casino clients by attacking competing casinos. While that scam may be the most venal exploitation of "faith" voters by Washington operatives, it's all too typical. This history repeats itself every political cycle: the conservative religious base turns out for its party and soon finds itself betrayed. The right's leaders are already threatening to stay home this election year because all they got for their support of Republicans in the previous election year was a lousy Bush-Cheney T-shirt. Actually, they also got two Supreme Court justices, but their wish list was far longer. Dr. Dobson, the child psychologist who invented Focus on the Family, set the tone with a tantrum on Fox, whining that Republicans were "ignoring those that put them in office" and warning of "some trouble down the road" if they didn't hop-to.
The doctor's diagnosis is not wrong. He has been punk'd — or Da Vinci'd — since 2004. Though President Bush endorsed the federal marriage amendment then, there's a reason he hasn't pushed it since. Not Gonna Happen, however many times it is dragged onto the Senate floor. The number of Americans who "strongly oppose" same-sex marriage keeps dropping — from 42 percent two years ago to 28 percent today, according to the Pew Research Center — and there will never be the votes to "write discrimination into the Constitution," as Mary Cheney puts it.
The real Republican establishment — including Laura Bush, who has repeatedly refused to disown the many gay families at this year's White House Easter Egg Roll — senses the drift of the culture. "Will & Grace" may have retired to reruns last week, but it's been supplanted by a gay "Sopranos" tough guy who out-brokebacks Jack and Ennis.
The religious right's hope for taming that culture is also doomed, however much Congress ceremoniously raises indecency fines in an election year. The major media companies, heavy donors to both parties, first get such bills watered down, then challenge the Federal Communications Commission's enforcement in court.
The mogul most ostentatiously supportive of Republican causes, Rupert Murdoch, may perennially fan the flames of a bogus "war on Christmas" on Fox, but he's waging his own, far more lethal war on the Christian right by starting a companion TV network this fall to match MySpace.com, his hugely popular and hugely libidinous Internet portal. Mr. Murdoch's new gift to America's youth, My Network TV, "will showcase greed, lust, sex," according to The Wall Street Journal. Conservatives fretting about his fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton don't even know what's about to hit them.
But for all these betrayals, Dr. Dobson and Company won't desert the Republicans come Election Day. If Mr. Rove steps up his usual gay-baiting late in the campaign, as is his wont, maybe the turnout of those on the hard-core right will eke out a victory for the party that double-crossed them not just on cultural issues but also on secular conservative principles (like fiscal responsibility and immigration-law enforcement). If so, they'll promptly be Da Vinci'd yet again. A Republican retreat on stem-cell research is already under way. If there's electoral fallout from the South Dakota Legislature's Draconian abortion ban — the Republican governor's job-approval rating fell from 72 percent to 58 percent in a single month after he signed it — the pro-life checklist in Congress will suffer as well.
Whatever happens in November, the good news is that the religious right leaders most stroked by Mr. Rove, many of them past 70, may no longer command such large blocs of voters anyway. As Amy Sullivan writes in the latest New Republic, Mr. Rove has reason to worry about "another group of evangelicals: the nearly 40 percent who identify themselves as politically moderate and who are just as likely to get energized about AIDS in Africa or melting ice caps as partial-birth abortion and lesbian couples in Massachusetts." The bad news is that no sooner does the religious-right base show signs of cracking in a youthquake than the Democrats trot out their own doomed Da Vinci strategy.
This idiocy began the morning after Election Day 2004, when a vaguely worded exit-poll question persuaded credulous party leaders that "moral values" determined their defeat (as opposed to, say, their standard-bearer's campaign). Their immediate response was to seek out faith-based consultants not unlike those recruited by Sony, and practice dropping the word "values" and biblical quotations into their public pronouncements. In the House, they organized, heaven help us, a Democratic Faith Working Group.
As the next election approaches, they're renewing this effort, to farcical effect. The Democrats' chairman, Howard Dean, who proved his faith-based bona fides in the 2004 primary season by citing Job as his favorite book in the New Testament, went on the Pat Robertson TV network this month and yanked his party's position on same-sex marriage to the right. (He apologized for his "misstatement" once off the air.)
Not to be left behind, Senator Clinton gave a speech last week knocking young people for thinking "work is a four-letter word" and for having TV's in their rooms, home Internet access and, worst of all, that ultimate instrument of the devil, iPods. "I hope that we start thinking some very old-fashioned thoughts," she said. (She also subsequently apologized, once her daughter complained, joining the general chorus of ridicule.) However "old-fashioned" Mrs. Clinton's thoughts, don't expect her to turn back Mr. Murdoch's campaign cash in protest against his steamy new TV channel.
The one New York politician even more disingenuous in this racket is Rudolph Giuliani. He outdid John McCain's appearance with Jerry Falwell by campaigning last week for Ralph Reed in the lieutenant governor's race in Georgia. Any religious conservative who mistakes "America's mayor," an adamant supporter of abortion rights and gay rights, for a fellow traveler is in desperate need of an intervention, if not an exorcism.
But that hypothetical, easily duped voter may no longer exist. Like the Bush era, the cynical Rove strategy of exploiting faith-based voters may be nearing its end. For proof, just take a look at the most craven figure in American politics: the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist. To flatter the far right, this Harvard-trained surgeon misdiagnosed Terri Schiavo's vegetative state from the Senate floor, and justified abstinence-only sex education in AIDS prevention by telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he didn't know for certain that tears and sweat couldn't transmit H.I.V. But increasingly it's not only liberals who see through him. One of his latest stunts, a proposed $100 gas-tax rebate, provoked Rush Limbaugh to condemn him for "treating us like we're a bunch of whores."
When senators as different as Mr. Frist and Mrs. Clinton both earn bipartisan ridicule for their pandering, you have to believe that there's a god other than Karl Rove watching over American politics after all.