SALT LAKE CITY — Tea partiers aren't known for their aversion to heated debates, but Utah's grassroots conservative groups are joining activists nationwide in ignoring — even avoiding — controversial social issues.
In the wake of last week's federal court ruling striking down California's ban on gay marriage, social issues are once again making headlines around the country. But one of the most high-profile political forces in the country has largely remained silent.
Alternately political hot potatoes and partisan wedge issues, social questions about gay marriage, abortion and legalized drugs have often slipped below the surface as the tea party movement peddles a message based on economics and government intervention, rather than culture.
"The common idea became, 'If we don't save the republic from economic catastrophe, those other issues don't matter,' " said Christine Botteri, whose work with the National Tea Party Federation gives her the opportunity to observe such groups across the country. "While there is often disagreement, most groups came to agree to that premise."
And while their fluid nature makes it difficult to generalize, Utah grassroots conservative groups have come to mirror that premise, says Davis County 9/12 organizer Darcy Van Orden.
Even in a state as socially conservative as Utah, the patchwork of tea party and related groups that has sprung up since the 2008 election of President Barack Obama remains focused on smaller government, lower taxes and less spending, Van Orden said.
In fact, Van Orden insists that establishment politicians have used divisive social issues to distract voters from out-of-control government growth.
"The point is the level of risk," she said. "The danger posed by fiscal irresponsibility and government power far outweighs that of the culture wars. We just don't have the luxury of debating social issues now."
Salt Lake County Grassroots Alliance organizer Larry Jensen agreed, adding that there is another reason for ignoring such "moral" issues.
"We consciously avoided social issues because they are divisive," he said.
According to The New York Times, 40 percent of tea party supporters oppose legal recognition for gay couples, but 41 percent support civil unions and 40 percent said they think the Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion was a good thing.
Issues like gay marriage have the potential to split the groups, which often include libertarians, who think government should stay out of people's lives as much as possible, and more traditional conservatives, who support laws against gay marriage.
While he personally believes issues like marriage should be left to churches and not government, Jensen said his observation is that Utah grassroots activists remain more socially conservative, rather than fully libertarian.
Nationwide, tea party leaders have largely remained silent on social issues, which often set them apart from more traditional Republican Party leaders.
That silence stems from the opposition to the bank bailouts, health care reform and increased government spending that served as the catalyst for the tea party phenomenon, said Brendon Steinhauser, who directs grassroots campaigns for the Washington, D.C.-based conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks.
"The driving sentiment behind these groups has always been based on economic issues," he said. "While a lot of people in these groups agree on social issues, they haven't been a focus, because they are really not the biggest threat to liberty."
Both Van Orden and Jensen say that, in their Utah meetings, activists have stayed focused on economic and small-government issues.
"Sometimes, it comes up as we discuss the erosion of culture, but generally we understand that we can be good people and disagree on those issues while working on bigger problems," Jensen said. "When the economy is about to collapse, gay marriage and marijuana fall way down the list."
But with the fight over gay marriage again making news, pundits have started to wonder if social issues will make a comeback.
In Utah, it's still an open question whether grassroots conservative groups will continue to ignore social issues, says Quinn Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU.
"The tea party movement is still very much in flux, so it's hard to measure trends," he said. "Without central leadership, no one can really control how the groups evolve."
Social issues rarely become campaign issues in Utah, because there is often "very little light between the candidates," with the state's Democrats usually taking moderate positions, Monson said.
Despite this, Monson said social issues always remain under the surface, and events like the gay marriage legal battle can provide opportunities for candidates and activists to "microtarget" groups of voters.
"The economy will likely remain the No. 1 issue, but social issues have the potential to be used," he said. "The future depends entirely on the political landscape. If the tea party movement continues to become more closely aligned with the Republican Party, other issues may come into play."
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