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Georgetown/ On Faith
Posted at 08:29 PM ET, 01/08/2012

Religion at the GOP debate

ABC News hosted a halting debate Saturday night at St. Anselm College. It was followed by a far better “Meet The Press” event Sunday morning. Neither gathering, however, provided much to roil the normally tranquil weekend news cycle.

Still there were a few noteworthy developments and one likely scenario is coming into focus for those who follow religious politicking:

Romney, Hard to Floor: In this campaign the former governor of Massachusetts has shown himself to be a superb defensive debater, a virtuoso of the rope-a-dope technique.

Consider the counterattack he executed this morning. In the late rounds, he found himself isolated, one-on-one, with the former Speaker of the House. This encounter with Newt Gingrich was frightening and this is because Newt Gingrich is frightening. And he is furious.

The former speaker had just been asked to reflect on Romney’s negative campaign ads in Iowa. This was a plum opportunity for a brutal, some might say justified, smackdown. Yet Gingrich couldn’t achieve any leverage. It was as if he channeled his inner Tim Pawlenty--looking clueless as to how to injure the frontrunner in face-to-face combat.

When the moderator asked Mitt for a riposte one could practically see Newt slipping into a red wrestling singlet about to be mounted and pinned by his opponent.

Well, Mitt asked with exaggerated curiosity, didn’t those Super Pac ads mention Newt’s chumminess with Nancy Pelosi? That was true. Didn’t they mention his calamitous demise as speaker of the House? That was true. What else? Oh yeah, that ethics investigation with the $300,000 fine? That was true too.

“Some of the things you’ve called me in public,” Romney then sighed looking hurt, “they’re over the top.”

But when Romney attacks he sometimes loses his balance and if he ends up debating Barack Obama in the fall he will need to attack a lot. Venturing out to assail Jon Huntsman for once praising the president, he returned bloodied. That sort of partisanship, countered Hunstman effectively, is what Americans hate.

Evangelicals Coalescing Around Santorum: Danger for the GOP: Rick Santorum is surging. He boomed at precisely the right moment in Iowa. It is too early to tell if the first wave of negative attacks will reduce him to a Bachmann/Perry/Cain/Gingrich-style bust.

Word came today that social conservative leader Gary Bauer will endorse the former senator from Pennsylvania. This would be part of a larger initiative of Christian right leaders to unite their flocks behind one appropriate candidate not named Mitt Romney.

With Michele Bachmann gone and Rick Perry about to disappear (see below) it seems likely that social conservatives will coalesce behind Santorum for a dramatic last stand in South Carolina.

Their intervention is fraught with dangers. Think back to 2008. John McCain had a long and often antagonistic relationship with conservative Christians going into the race. After shopping around, the latter fell in behind Mike Huckabee (though some worried he was too liberal).

When McCain eventually did capture the nomination journos feasted on summer stories with headlines like “Evangelicals Lukewarm on McCain,” or “Pastor X: ‘We’ll Sit the Election Out.” With the selection of Sarah Palin, McCain re-energized the Christian base, but too little too late.

My point is that for social conservatives to discount any GOP frontrunner is a risky strategy for all. If and when Romney emerges as the nominee he’ll owe them nothing. But without them he won’t go far. And neither will they.

The Danger of Not Having a Clear Definition of the Term “Secularism”: Asked about why forcefully deterring Iran was necessary, Rick Santorum responded “They are a theocracy that has deeply embedded beliefs that the afterlife is better than this life. . .that’s why there is a difference between, the Soviet Union and China and Iran.” On something of an uncharacteristic anti-theocratic roll, Santorum was later extolling the virtues of maintaining a “secular state” in Pakistan.

Yet a few minutes after that the senator was gearing up to pound Obama’s “secular ideology.” The night before Gingrich had railed against secular bigotry.

One problem here is that in American political discourse secularism has come to mean. . . . anything. Within the span of a few minutes it can be great (for Pakistan) and bad (for America). It is assumed to be an anti-Christian ideology, even though it emerged from Christian political philosophy! (Which is why I try to redefine and reboot secularism in my next book, but more on that around the launch).

And then, Panama!: On Saturday night Rick Perry advocated on behalf of the re-invasion of Iraq. Who knows, by the next debate, maybe he’ll be up for another go with Grenada. But in embracing a position that most Republicans would find preposterous, Perry is making it easier for evangelicals to turn to Santorum.

Ron Paul: Agent of Chaos, Opponent of Religious Rights: Ron Paul was dispensing haymakers left and right in both debates. He pounded Santorum as a corporate lobbyist. He re-upped, calling Newt Gingrich a “chicken hawk”--an affront to honor that would have surely triggered a duel back in the days of our nation’s founding.

Later on he argued that entitlements are not a right. Not content to leave it there, the libertarian proceeded to enumerate other bogus rights: 1) gay, 2) women’s, 3) minority, and 4)religious.

Whoa! Did the representative from Texas just call into question the idea of religious rights?!!

At the age of seventy-six, Ron Paul has one last chance, impassioned supporters, and nothing to lose.

Stay tuned.

By Jacques Berlinerblau  |  08:29 PM ET, 01/08/2012

 
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