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Conservative Christian voters are growing up

Conservative Evangelical Christian voters have come a long way in a short time. From their nearly unanimous condemnation of Bill Clinton for his extramarital affairs, a growing number of these ''pro-family'' voters appear ready to accept several Republican presidential candidates who do not share their ideal of marriage and faith.

Among those seriously under consideration by these church-going folks is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has been married three times and who had an affair with the woman who is now his wife when he was married to wife number two. The second wife, Donna Hanover, once recorded a political commercial for Giuliani, touting his virtues as a husband. She called him ''honest and very kind'' and ''this is the kind of man I wanted to be the father of my children'' and ''Rudy is such a great Dad.'' It's on YouTube. In recent days we've learned from his son Andrew that he and his father are estranged, but that they're working on it. Andrew says he got his values from his mother.

Another of the thrice married is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who, last week, trod the Damascus Road to Colorado Springs. On the syndicated radio program of psychologist James Dobson, Gingrich confessed that he had an extramarital affair with the woman to whom he is now married while he was married to his second wife. Gingrich acknowledged not living up to his own standards, or God's.

A third Republican presidential candidate is Sen. John McCain, who has been married twice. He is disliked by many social conservatives more for his support of campaign finance reform, which they regard as an attempt to limit their speech, his work on immigration with Ted Kennedy and past remarks that some evangelical leaders are ''agents of intolerance.''

Mitt Romney has the right social conservative views, fairly recently bringing them into conformity with their own, but to some conservative evangelicals he has the ''wrong'' religion. Romney, a Mormon, is the poster boy for family values: one wife, handsome children, and no apparent personal skeletons in his closet, but some, not all, evangelicals can't get over the Mormon belief that Jesus once visited America. They also reject the ''Book of Mormon,'' which they believe tells ''another gospel.''

That substantial numbers of conservative evangelical voters are even considering these candidates as presidential prospects is a sign of their political maturation and of their more pragmatic view of what can be expected from politics and politicians. It is also evidence that many of them are awakening to at least two other realities: (1) they are not electing a church deacon; and (2) government has limited power to rebuild a crumbling social construct.

The Census Bureau recently noted that only 23.7 percent of the U.S. population fit the '50s stereotype of heterosexual married couples with children. Even in the ''golden age'' of the '50s, the figure was just under 50 percent. Until this election cycle, most social conservatives supported candidates and policies based on the married with children ''ideal'' family model. It may be the ideal, but it is no longer widely practiced, including by many conservative evangelicals. Researchers have found many conservative Christians live in states where divorce rates are highest. These states overwhelmingly oppose same-sex marriage. Too bad they don't do a better job supporting opposite-sex marriage in which they claim to believe.

No politician can fix broken heterosexual marriages. If they could, some of those mentioned above would have fixed their own. The crumbling traditional family is the result of many social and cultural factors. The solution, like the fault, lies neither with government, nor with politicians.

While character issues can overlap with other concerns when considering for whom to vote, conservative evangelicals are beginning to see them as less important than who can meet the multiple challenges faced by the nation. Put it this way: If you are about to have major surgery and your only choice was a church-going doctor with a high mortality rate, or an agnostic with a high success record, which would it be? I'd choose the agnostic.

Conservative evangelicals have grown up. But they still can't stand Hillary Clinton, though she's only been married once and is a Methodist. Jimmy Carter, also once married, only lusted in his heart. It makes one nostalgic for the ''good old days.''

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at calthomas@tribune.com.

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