There is a trope in educated, white-collar circles that the trouble with the GOP is the fundies -- that the GOP is too tied to white evangelicals and conservative catholics, and that this is what makes the GOP so crazy. We're going to hear more of this after the recent election, after Akin and Mourdock happened to frame pro-life orthodoxy in a truthful but unflattering way, and lost their senate races in the process. After episodes like this, we are bound to hear that the GOP's problem is inflexible social conservatism and too much religion. And those things are not good, probably not for the GOP and certainly not for our nation. But this narrative of the perfidious fundy highjacking the high-minded conservative movement is untrue on a number of levels, starting with simple chronology.
The modern conservative movement can trace its roots back to opposition to the New Deal in the 30's. But it didn't emerge in its modern, insurgent form until the Birchers in the 50's and Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunting gave the reactionary right a populist appeal. This was made respectable by William F. Buckley's pseudo-intellectual shilling and then by Barry Goldwater's far-right (for its time) platform in 1964. The Republican party pats itself on the back for discovering its true, anti-government self in 1964, but what it really discovered was that southern racists would vote for Republicans if Republicans opposed the Voting Rights act. Nixon then made this appeal official in 1968 with his 'southern strategy.'
Now the republican right in all these years was somewhere between certifiable and despicable, between Bircher paranoia (revived in recent years by Glenn Beck et al), McCarthy's detestable, useless witch hunting* to his own partisan ends and Goldwater's 'principled' stance that the federal government should not stop descrimination by the states and private businesses. It was and is a paranoid movement, dedicated to conspiracy theories (see 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics' from the early 60's) and increasingly hostile to minorities (see Buckley's opposition to civil rights through the 50's and 60's). Doesn't this sound familiar?
And all of this happened before the awakening of the religious right in the 1980's. A white-populist, somewhat paranoid conservative movement predates the ascent of Jerry Falwell by at least 2 decades. And when the religious right did become a force, it seemed to be as much because religious people became more conservative rather than conservatives becoming more religious -- the Republican party 'captured' American Evangelical Christianity. This can be seen in any number of ways, from the increasing acceptance of Catholics as allies against abortion to Evangelicals certainly deciding that Environmentalism is evil to the Billy Graham Evangelical Association conveniently deciding that Mormonism is not a cult. The very issue of Abortion as a major cause for protestants dates to the Nixon political machine. I see this 'capture' in my friend's formerly socialist, very Catholic mother, who started voting Republican because she was anti-abortion and is starting to complain about welfare queens. I see it in the Catholic Church forgetting most of its teachings about social justice and immigration and doubling down on 'defending marriage' and 'protecting life.'
This is not to say the the Religious Right is not horrible. It is to say that the disease of the American conservative movement is not a religious one, but goes to the heart of their ideology and political appeal. If you take away the opposition to gay marriage, the opposition to a woman's right to choose and the opposition to teaching evolution (and that's really the sum of the religious planks in the party platform) then you're still left with dog-whistled appeals to racism, deluded anti-environmentalism, paranoid anti-government nuttery and a disastrous economic plan based on quacks like Ayn Rand and von Mises (who supported the gold standard and opposed the use of empirical evidence in economics).
It's not hard to see why the narrative of the perfidious fundy comes from -- social snobbery, and the biases of a libertarian-leaning commentariat. The social snobbery angle is simple -- a lot of rich white folks would like to think that the Republican party would be just dandy if it was run by the guys on wall street, but the problem is that it's been overrun by hicks. The libertarian angle is a bit more complicated, but libertarianism is more popular in the media than it is in actual policy. Fundamentalists are a convenient fall guy to explain why the Republican party is not the libertarian party.
This, of course, raises another question - is letting the poor die in the streets morally superior to homophobia?
*One could argue that their were communists in the US government in the 40's, but HUAC and the Truman administration had rooted them out before McCarthy came on the scene)