OLD FOOT-SOLDIERS LOOK ASKANCE AT NEW ONES…. For about a quarter-century, the Republican Party has relied on so-called culture warriors and religious right groups to serve as the party’s foot-soldiers. The GOP can’t exactly count on lobbyists for insurance companies and ExxonMobil to stuff envelopes, work at phone banks, and help with get-out-the-vote drives.

So, the party has relied on social conservatives — who care primarily about hating gays, banning abortion, and getting government support for their religion — to serve as the activist base.

With that in mind, a fairly significant change is underway. The religious right’s influence on the GOP isn’t as strong as it was, and the Tea Party crowd — with a very different set of priorities — is positioned to replace social conservatives as the driving force of the right-wing base. These new conservative foot-soldiers not only aren’t interested in religious right issues, they tend to deliberately ignore the religious right agenda, which they see as alienating those who may be sympathetic to a right-wing approach to economics.

The tensions between the factions have been simmering for months, with competing contingents even battling over who the “real” Tea Partiers are. Ben Smith had a good piece the other day highlighting the fact that the religious right fears it’s being pushed aside.

The rise of a new conservative grass-roots fueled by a secular revulsion at government spending is stirring fears among leaders of the old conservative grass-roots, the evangelical Christian right. […]

[S]ome social conservative leaders have begun to express concern that tea party leaders don’t care about their issues, while others object to the personal vitriol against President Barack Obama, whose personal conduct many conservative Christians applaud.

“There’s a libertarian streak in the tea party movement that concerns me as a cultural conservative,” said Bryan Fischer, director of Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy at the American Family Association. “The tea party movement needs to insist that candidates believe in the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.”

By all indications, the fissures are growing wider as the religious right feels more isolated. The movement that’s accustomed to being the driving force of the conservative base isn’t adjusting well to its diminished role, lost influence, and agenda that just doesn’t seem as relevant anymore.

The division is playing itself out in a variety of ways. For example, Republican state lawmakers in Oklahoma have been debating new regulations on marriage and divorce, including the possibility of mandatory counseling for couples who want to get married, and therapy sessions before a couple can legally divorce. Given Oklahoma’s extremely high divorce rates, many in the GOP consider this a worthwhile, “pro-family” effort, while nearly as many Republicans believe marriage is a personal matter and none of the state’s business. The argument is almost entirely an intra-party one, with GOP officials disagreeing about what the government can and should do.

These tensions, which are evident nationwide, matter a great deal — one side wants smaller government in all instances; the other wants bigger government on issues related to gays, abortion, religion, and marital status.

The more pronounced the fissures, the more problematic it is for Republicans.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.