It’s way too early for liberal secularists to start breaking out the bubbly. But two recent Republican primaries–in Deep South states, of all places–have exposed some potentially serious cracks in the party’s religious-right foundation. In Alabama and Georgia, national icons of Christian conservatism made high-profile runs for state office against old-school, Chamber of Commerce Republicans. In both cases the religious-right candidates began the race with high popularity ratings. In the end they both got clobbered.

The louder jolt rumbled out of the Peach State on July 18, when former Christian Coalition boy genius Ralph Reed lost the Republican primary for lieutenant governor–a race seen by his admirers as a first step toward the White House–to obscure State Senator Casey Cagle by an emphatic 56-to-44 margin. Reed’s once-invincible campaign was continually thrown off track by widening revelations about Reed’s lucrative consulting work on behalf of Jack Abramoff’s Indian casino clients–namely, the way Reed scored a cool $5.3 million by conning thousands of Christians into joining faux anti-gambling campaigns in Texas, Alabama and Louisiana. But what truly doomed his chances–and split religious-right voters into squabbling camps–were lonely-but-loud voices on the religious right who challenged their fellow believers to hold Reed to account. In World magazine, the leading national journal of the evangelical right, editor Marvin Olasky (like Reed, a former Bush adviser) took Reed to task in passionate editorials that stunned many readers. In Georgia, Christian Coalition president Sadie Fields defended her man to the end, but others spoke out in disgust. “It is time for Christians to confront and rebuke Ralph Reed, not make apologies for him,” wrote Christian lobbyist Clint Austin, a former Reed adviser, in a letter widely distributed to Georgia Republicans in the final days before the primary, when the polls still showed Reed in a dead heat with Cagle.

The Christian right had already suffered an earlier rebuke in June, when Alabama Republicans rebuffed, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, the effort by Roy Moore, the former “Ten Commandments Judge,” to unseat incumbent Governor Bob Riley. The vast majority of Alabamians had cheered Moore’s installment of a two-and-a-half-ton granite monument to Old Testament law in the state’s judicial building when he was chief justice, and most stood by him when he was removed from office for defying court orders to remove it. But the limitations, and downright scariness, of Moore’s theocratic vision became all too apparent when he ran for governor. On election day a big chunk of the Christian right stayed home. Georgia’s “foot soldiers” followed suit a few weeks later–enough to make Republican strategists shudder as they look toward November.