Wading In: Why Evangelicals are Having Trouble Finding a Candidate in the GOP

With primary season beginning, in what has already been a somewhat extended election campaign, at least on the Republican side, and several casualties already having occurred, I might as well wade into the commentary and let my voice be heard as well.  Please note that the opinions I am expressing are my own, and if you disagree, or want to comment on them, you’re welcome to do so in a civil manner that reflects thoughtful consideration, not in an accusatory, judgmental, hostile manner that reflects your complete lack of tolerance for something you didn’t think of yourself.  I’ll jump on that in a hurry, and call you out bubba!

What we have right now is a Republican Primary race with three candidates who have attracted the support of at least a portion of the party’s most loyal constituency, commonly known as the conservative Evangelical Right, or the Religious Right.  The interesting thing about this is that two of the three candidates are not actually members of churches that would fall within the broader definition of “Evangelical Conservative,” but are, in fact, active, practicing Catholics.  Now that doesn’t necessarily mean there is some kind of inconsistency, or that it isn’t possible for a Catholic presidential candidate to represent at least some of the values that conservative Evangelicals want to see in their President.  But it is not consistent with the rhetoric that has been part of what has come to be known as the “Religious Right” over the past thirty years or so.

There are a lot of voices calling for two of the three to drop out, so that the anti-Romney segment of the party, namely most of the Religious Right, can form a slight majority around one of them and defeat Romney’s bid for the nomination.  I’m all for that.  But the problem is figuring out which one is best suited to run for President as the Republican nominee.

Newt Gingrich as a lot of baggage that would have to be overcome, having had a highly publicized affair (commonly defined as “adultery” in the Evangelical community) and is in his third marriage.  He also “converted” from being a Southern Baptist church member, one of the groups at the core of right wing Evangelical politics, to the Catholic church which, under normal circumstances and in normal situations would not sit well with most of his former fellow church members.  At least some of the support from among the conservative Evangelical community comes from the corporate wealth of the “One Percenters” which puts them at odds with Ron Paul.  The congressman from Texas is a Lutheran turned Baptist, which puts him within the conservative Evangelical constituency.  But many conservative Evangelical Christian leaders are fabulously wealthy, and aren’t going to support a candidate who is for balancing out the economic burdens of running the country, like Paul is.  And while many of them would like to put their support behind Rick Santorum, who seems to most closely represent their position, at least on social issues, he is seen as “unelectable” as a result of a very bad loss in his attempt to hold his Pennsylvania Senate seat.

The denominational preference of these three men should not be a major problem for most conservative Evangelicals.  The leaders of the party’s right wing considered George W. Bush “one of them,” though they had to go to great lengths to make that connection, and at times, Bush resisted attempts to classify himself as such.  Bush joined a relatively liberal Methodist congregation where his wife belonged after they married, but was heavily influenced on social issues by his more liberal Episcopalian background.  He favored “civil unions” for gays and lesbians, never really put much heart or soul into banning abortion, and his policy on Israel favored the creation of an independent Palestinian state.  He often seemed to be amused at attempts to make him into a fightin’ fundamentalist, and shied away from photo ops at big Evangelical megachurches in favor of appearances with an Episcopalian priest (or priestess) outside St. John’s Church near the White House.  He got a pass on all of that from leadership of the religious right, though it is not possible to point to a single accomplishment in their social agenda that occurred during his presidency.  I think you should measure a President’s perspective by what he put his heart and soul into accomplishing, don’t you?

So it seems to me that if someone is going to accurately and completely represent the interests of socially conservative Evangelical Christians in the White House, it should probably be someone who is a member of an Evangelical Christian church, and has some level of understanding about the Evangelical Christian faith.  Tim Pawlenty ran out of money before he could make a serious appeal for support, which is too bad, since he would have been, by far and away, the best candidate from that constituency.  Michelle Bachmann was too loud, too angry, and displayed an apalling lack of knowledge of both the workings of government and the constitition.  Sarah Palin, aside from a similar lack of knowledge and an apparent lack of desire to become informed, was little more than a “cliche” candidate, saying whatever she needed to say to get a reaction out of her limited audience.  And a few Evangelicals thought her time might be better spent teaching her children values she claimed to have, especially related to sexual purity before marriage.  And Rick Perry turned out to have everything a candidate needed to win, including money, nice hair, experience as governor of a large state, and nominal connection to a church.  All he lacked was a brain.

Ron Paul is the only candidate in the field now who actually has a record as such.

The Evangelical Christian culture is hard to explain to someone who hasn’t really grown up in it, or been part of it for long.  There are differences, from theology to sociology, between Evangelicals and “Mainline Protestants,” and obviously between both of those groups and Catholics.  Those differences will be part of the reason why the religious right wing of the GOP will have some difficulty rallying around one candidated for the party nomination.  And the same differences will come to light if Mit Romney, a Mormon, gets the nomination.  Some religious right wingers will vote for whomever the Republican nominee is.  But there will be others who will weight faith against politics, and whose convictions will keep them from voting for Mit.  Ultimately, that might make a difference in who wins the general election in 2012.

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One response to “Wading In: Why Evangelicals are Having Trouble Finding a Candidate in the GOP

  1. Colby Evans

    There is no way that the establishment in the GOP, or its Evangelical Conservative wing, can fully support Ron Paul’s libertarianism. The corporate interests which are represented by most of the candidates, especially Mit Romney, will never stand for a level playing field in which they have to pay their fair share of support for the government that helps them do business. Conservatives want to use the power of government to protect their religious practices and beliefs, but do not want them extended to people who are not like they are. So they can’t tolerate libertarian views either.

    The GOP will either go with Romney, and have to hope that the loss of enthusiasm, and the fact that about 20% of the party will likely just stay home on election day, will be balanced by picking up some independent support. Or they will find another candidate who more closely reflects their conservative position, and risk losing independent voters who will either stay home or support the President.

    I said a year ago that the Republican differences that were beginning to show up at the end of the Bush administration would eventually lead to the party’s inability to field a candidate for president in 2012 that could beat Obama. That appears to be materializing. The enthusiasm and momentum from the 2010 Congressional election was temporary, and has long since evaporated in the job approval rating of the Republican controlled House. There’s been some speculation, though not much evidence, that the GOP might take the senate in 2012, but it is looking more and more like they are going to lose the house–big.