Last week, Franklin Graham set off a media firestorm when, in an interview on MSNBC, he unequivocally vouched for Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich’s faith but falsely insinuated that President Obama’s Christian faith might be insincere. Graham even alleged that the president could be complicit in a secret plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate the government.
The incident drove home to me just how surreal our public dialogue about religion and politics has become. Given his extensive history of bigoted rhetoric and baseless attacks on the President’s faith, it’s a shame that Graham was invited on air in the first place. The media seems all too willing to manufacture political controversy by inflaming religious bigotry.
In the wake of Graham’s offensive comments, I joined more than 100 faith leaders in releasing a letter standing up for the President’s faith and condemning politically motivated attacks against it. Faith leaders also held a press teleconference call to defend the President by pointing to their experiences working with the administration to strengthen their communities. Prominent evangelical pastor Joel Hunter penned an op-ed in The Hill explaining his personal, pastoral relationship with President Obama.
In addition to setting the record straight, our statements helped further the growing narrative that the faith community rejects the Religious Right’s political divisiveness. People of faith have spoken out continually on this matter. More than 20,000 members of Faithful America recently called on MSNBC to stop inviting Tony Perkins (head of Family Research Council, a Religious Right organization designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) onto their network. Earlier this month, more than 1,000 pastors signed a pledge to hold politicians accountable for religious attacks, and a diverse coalition of prominent religious groups released a statement calling on candidates to refrain from religiously divisive campaigning.
There’s plenty of room for reasonable differences of opinion on the appropriate uses of religion in politics. What sounds like authentic witness to some might sound like religious pandering to others. But personal attacks on individuals’ religious beliefs for political gain are clearly beyond the pale, and the vast majority of people of faith reject them. Let’s make sure the media and the Religious Right get the memo.
Dr. Stephen S. Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research at Catholic University, has an important piece on the “Catholic vote” this week.
Schneck breaks the Catholic population down into three distinct groups: Latino Catholics who mirror earlier Catholic immigrants in their ethnic ties to the Democratic party, “cultural Catholics” who have lower levels of mass attendance and mixed political views, and “intentional Catholics” who by virtue of not having left the Church, are “distilled” down to a more conservative group who “actively choose to embrace the church and its teachings” and “are motivated by economic issues and increasingly by opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration.”
These observations seem to fit with John Sides’s analysis of presidential approval polls which tentatively suggested that Obama’s “political hit” among Catholics after the release of his administration’s contraception regulations appeared to occur largely among a limited group of Catholics who already disapprove of the President and are unlikely to vote for him anyway.
Michael Sean Winters adds:
It is true that Catholics as a whole, due to assimilation, now reflect the electorate as a whole. There are conservative Catholics on one side and liberal Catholics on the other. In between, are the Catholic swing voters. What distinguishes Catholics as a religious group in politics, then, is not that they vote as a bloc but that a significant number of them remain up for grabs, which is not necessarily true of other religious cohorts within the electorate.
The results of this week’s Florida primary raise serious questions about the political influence of Religious Right leaders. As Amy Sullivan has pointed out, conservative Christian elites – men like James Dobson, Tony Perkins, the late Jerry Falwell – have rarely seen their favorite candidate win the GOP presidential nomination. I’m sure they’re used to settling for second best by now, but this year’s contest must be particularly frustrating.
As we’ve noted before a who’s-who of the religious right had an emergency summit in Texas just two weeks ago for the expressed purpose of coalescing around a conservative candidate, and the implicit purpose of stopping Mitt Romney. Nonetheless, Romney cruised to a crushing victory in Florida. Rick Santorum, the group’s favorite, finished a distant third, and Newt Gingrich, their second choice, finished 14 points behind Romney and outperformed him among white evangelicals by a mere two percentage points.
In other words, it would be tough to argue that these religious right leaders had any effect in Florida. But before we go declaring them dead, it’s important to note that while their influence over the outcome of the primary was negligible, the fact that every candidate espouses social conservative positions indicates that they’re still agenda setters in the GOP.
As the Republican presidential candidates court Latino voters in Florida and discuss their policy proposals for handling the immigration questions facing the U.S., the stakes for families suffering under our broken system could not be higher.
During a recent event on religion’s role in the 2012 elections held at the Center for American Progress, Rev. Gabriel Salguero, President of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and executive member of the Latino Leadership Circle, noted the consistent support for immigration reform among the faith community and the broader American electorate. Salguero also discussed the potential political consequences of the staking out hardline, anti-immigrant positions on the campaign trail.
One of the most important observations from Saturday’s South Carolina primary results was the apparent lack of impact the “evangelical endorsement” of Santorum by prominent Religious Right figures had on the race.
Mindful of ongoing division around a crop of candidates that failed to inspire the Christian conservative community, James Dobson, Donald Wildmon and Gary Bauer organized a summit of Religious Right leaders in Texas the weekend before the primary to coalesce around one candidate. (Presumably, they were also trying to avoid repeating history, given the conventional wisdom that this same group’s delay in rallying around Mike Huckabee in 2008 inadvertently contributed to the nomination of the less palatable John McCain)
Not only did the summit fail to unify the Religious Right (before the group’s agreed-upon 24-hour period of silence ended, leaks were already calling into question the legitimacy of the vote result), but the resulting “endorsement” also failed to generate support for Santorum among primary voters.
The graph below shows aggregate polling over time, measuring likely voters’ support for Gingrich and Santorum in South Carolina leading up to the election:
Note how Santorum’s numbers show actually dropped a bit after the summit on the 14th. Gingrich, of course, was the candidate who ended up taking off, presumably on the strength of his debate appearances that week. The final vote total (40.4% for Gingrich, 17% for Santorum) was only a few points off the average of the final day of polling.
South Carolina is about as evangelical as states come, and Rick Santorum is about as perfect a match as gun-toting, grit-loving God-fearers could hope for. It says something about the state of evangelicalism when 65 percent of them would rather choose between a thrice-married “champion of family values” and questionably pro-life Mormon than the candidate anointed by the evangelical elites. Perhaps South Carolina has made clear what has been true for some time – that Christians are not monolithic and the American political process will no longer be significantly shaped by a handful of partisan religious leaders.
While it’s certainly accurate to point out that the king-making influence of these handful of Religious Right stalwarts seems to be greatly diminished, it would be dangerous to extrapolate too far and suggest this represents the end of the Christian right as a whole.
A quick glance at the current GOP platform testifies to the success the movement has had shaping the Republican party to its own likeness. Ed Kilgore explains:
Unlike 2008, no candidate in the field is pro-choice by any definition. Only Ron Paul seems reluctant to enact a national ban on same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain have been vocal in fanning the flames of Islamophobia; again, only Paul has bothered to dissent to any significant degree.
Mitt Romney, of course, has a history on cultural issues that instills mistrust among many on the Christian Right. But his current positions bring him entirely in accord with social conservative priorities, and if he were elected, he would enter office more committed to Christian Right goals than any president in history. And if he is the nominee, he will likely choose a running-mate (and potential successor) who will, like McCain’s in 2008 (after social conservatives essentially vetoed his first and second choices), delight the Christian Right.
While future candidates may feel less obliged to kiss the rings of Religious Right powerbrokers, so long as religious conservatives continue to make up a significant portion of the Republican primary voter pool, I wouldn’t expect radical changes in the increasingly conservative positions GOP candidates espouse.