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.
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.
After Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal (R – Hutchinson) forwarded around an email using the Bible to pray for President Obama’s death, Faithful America members quickly responded with a petition calling for his resignation. In just over a week, the petition has amassed over 30,000 signatures nationwide.
Today, two Kansas pastors, Rev. Tobias Schlingensiepen and Rev. Jim McCullough, gathered at the State Capitol to deliver the petitions and reiterate the signers’ demand. Rev. Schlingensiepen explained his motivation for signing:
Speaker O’Neal’s behavior is an affront to the Christian faith and unworthy of his office. It’s unpatriotic and offensive for an elected representative to wish harm upon the President of the United States. His refusal to show remorse shows that it’s time for him to resign, and to reflect upon the true foundations of his faith.
Robert Wright at the Atlantic has an important reflection on the message pop culture humor about Tim Tebow’s faith sends to religious conservatives:
When secular liberals who shape the culture fulfill the religious conservatives’ stereotype of them as threatening–by, say, seeming to ridicule Jesus, or seeming to ridicule Tebow’s faith–conservatives will be more inclined to stay within their walls, avoiding engagement with the secular world. So they’ll find it easier to reject the entire liberal agenda, ranging from gay rights to uncensored science education in the public schools. (Don’t get me started on the damage that I fear Richard Dawkins is doing to science education in the heartland by embodying a false equation between Darwinism and a militant, contemptuous atheism.) In short, when liberals are seen as ridiculing Christianity, they’re energizing their adversaries and making it harder to turn adversaries into allies, or at least neutral parties, on particular issues.
Wright is exactly right. Churches across the country are filled with proud people of faith who often have progressive or sympathetic views on a host of issues including economic justice, immigration and environmental stewardship.
By emphasizing the religious foundation for their views on a few divisive social issues like abortion or same-sex marriage, the religious right seeks to broadly paint progressives (and subsequently their issue agenda) as hostile to faith itself.
To further bolster the claim that Christians are a persecuted minority, conservative leaders point to liberal “elites” in cultural channels who they see as mocking religion and traditional family values. As the preponderance of Christian alternatives to everything from radio stations to dating sites shows, many Christians very much desire their own spaces outside of the “mainstream” outlets they presume have little interest in or tolerance for them.
Unfortunately, cheap humor at the strangeness or “backwardness” of religious belief only confirms these anxious stereotypes in ways that empower the narrative religious right leaders want to tell and shuts doors to broader coalition building. Progressives don’t have to compromise their values in their attempts to combat this frame, but it’s probably not a good idea to unnecessarily shoot themselves in the foot for a quick laugh.
Religious Right darling and disgraced former lobbyist Ralph Reed is back on the scene in the 2012 election cycle as head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
This past weekend, Reed organized an event across from the South Carolina debate site, featuring conservative religious voters, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, and a number of the GOP contenders. Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jim Galloway described the event as a “tent revival” with some questionable political and theological references:
Prosperity gospel was in vogue. With a few loud – perhaps accidental — bars of “Money, Money, Money,” the revival opened with a video address from Donald Trump, who declared that the world “is laughing at the stupidity of our leaders. They’re absolutely taking us to the cleaners.”
Reed’s Religious Right confab back inJune attracted few participants but a number of political heavyweights, like Representative Paul Ryan and presidential candidates Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. At that event, there was an obvious schism between the Tea Party, small-government side of the conservative movement and the Christian Right, social-issues contingent.
This division within the GOP ranks is continuing to crop up and it seems like Reed unsuccessfully hoped to alleviate the tension between the two camps at his South Carolina event. Galloway writes:
The Faith and Freedom Coalition is an attempt to unite evangelicals with tea partyists, but religiosity had the upper hand on Monday afternoon. When Reed asked tea party adherents to raise their hands, only a quarter of the audience did so.
Particularly with Religious Right leaders deciding at a meeting last weekend to back Santorum over Romney and facing unanswered questions about their ability to actually influence the nomination or derail Romney’s momentum, Reed’s ability to deliver millions of evangelical votes for the GOP candidate is still unclear. Given that the reports out of the meeting varied widely (some participants, like Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, said the decision hinged on “Obamacare” but Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention claimed social issues were paramount to the group’s decision), the Tea Party- Religious Right schism looks far from resolved.