Foreign policy matters to Christian conservatives

Many MSM political reporters know little about foreign policy and of those who do, even fewer have a feel for the evangelical community. It therefore isn’t surprising that they ignore a key dynamic for 2016: The prominence of foreign policy among the top issues for Christian conservatives.

U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio prepares to answer questions after delivering his keynote speech entitled 'American Leadership and the future of the Transatlantic Alliance' at Chatham House in London December 3, 2013. REUTERS/Toby Melville (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS)
Sen. Marco Rubio. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Levels of support for Israel are sky high among this group of voters, but it’s a mistake to think foreign policy interest is only about Israel or only about Christian persecution in countries like Cuba, China and the Arab world. For one thing, serious Zionists understand the role of the United States in the Middle East, and in the world more generally, as the bulwark against aggression and tyranny. As one official with a pro-Israel organization likes to put it, “You can’t be for a strong Israel and then be for a weak America.”

Concerned Women for America, “the nation’s largest public policy organization for women, with membership listed at 600,000. . . [and] chapters in nearly every state, and volunteers help to monitor local, state and federal legislation,” was until recently focused on social and economic issues. But last year CWA elevated Israel to one of its seven core concerns. That puts potentially hundreds of thousands of politically pro-Israel women activists into the thick of the 2016 primaries, with a prominent state organization in Iowa.

Then there is Christians United for Israel, the largest pro-Israel group in the country. They will hold their annual confab in Washington next week at an obviously critical time for U.S. foreign policy. They aren’t yet sizing up the candidates, but they will be discussing the foreign policy collapse and crisis after crisis brought on because the United States is perceived as weak and unreliable.

David Brog, CUFI’s executive director, told Right Turn, “Our members recognize that Israel’s enemies are America’s enemies. They see that those who hate the Jewish state also despise the Christians in their midst.  And they understand that ignoring these threats today will only mean a more bloody battle tomorrow.” What are they looking for then? Brog says that “first and foremost, our members want to support leaders who will assert America’s essential leadership role in the world to wisely confront these threats before they inevitably grow more severe.” In other words, they are looking for the most un-President Obama candidate they can find.

There is no doubt, from public statements and stances going back years, that candidates like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), former senator Rick Santorum, as well as Govs. Rick Perry (Tex.) and Mike Pence (Ind.) feel deeply both about Israel’s survival and U.S. leadership in the world. (Having spent much of his career in foreign policy robustly defending American interests, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton is certainly in this category.) Although he is often consumed with domestic matters, the same is true of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) Whatever their other views, they have a genuine interest in foreign policy and a command of  their facts. Not coincidentally all of the politicians who have held elective office also have big followings among Christian conservatives.

If they run, these individuals likely will present themselves to the general public, as well as evangelicals specifically, as the person to turn foreign policy around, take the ongoing jihadist threat seriously, make amends with longstanding allies and rebuild the military. Anyone can call himself anything he likes, but the proof will be in the records, votes and positions of people who want to clean up the mess that Obama will leave behind.

Evangelical voters who care about foreign policy know what a “Reagan on foreign policy looks like.” They’ll be looking at a number of specifics:

  • Where were the candidates when Obama pulled all troops out of Iraq and then announced a plan to do so from Afghanistan? Did they realize the danger of hard fought gains being undone, and Iran in particular taking advantage of our pullout?
  • Did they see early on and then consistently support using economic sanctions and then the threat of military action against Iran? Do they appreciate and have ideas for combating Iranian aggression throughout the region and the mullahs ongoing support for terror?
  • Did they realize the danger of ISIS, and do they have a well-thought out plan to address it?
  • What’s their plan for deterring aggression regionally and internationally (e.g. cyber-terrorism) from China?
  • How supportive are they of the anti-terror architecture that allows us to anticipate attacks, gain critical intelligence and thereby save lives and minimize collateral damage?
  • Do they treat national security like a criminal proceeding in which you build a case, arrest and Mirandize “suspects” or do they understand the law of war and U.S. precedent for dealing with traitors and enemy combatants?
  • Do they think our military is too small or too big? How have they voted on defense spending?
  • Do they consider Russia a threat to Europe and what are they prepared to do about it?

There is not a single foreign policy agenda that all conservatives agree upon.  There are politicians and voters more supportive of democracy support and human rights and those who lean toward the “realist” (I would argue that’s a misnomer, but that’s a whole other discussion). And no one can anticipate all threats, but there are politicians with better batting averages than others. But on these core issues — terrorism, Iran, Israel, Russia, defense spending — there is little patience for inconsistency or the Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) brand of foreign policy. (If people want to know why so many 2016 contenders are disassociating themselves from Paul’s foreign policy views, this is why.)

These voters don’t think it’s wise to signal any interest in “containment” of Iran or treat anti-terror policy like a civilian courtroom, nor are they indifferent to the fate of ISIS in the Middle East. They support defense spending to build a robust military. They consider the Russian “reset” to have been a huge error and see that nation as a geopolitical adversary that has grown increasingly confident. They understand soft and hard power give us leverage with adversaries and that the world’s problems aren’t going to be solved simply by free trade and meet-and-greet sessions.

On some topics a candidate can get by on a few talking points, but foreign policy, especially in the Obama era, requires discipline, knowledge and a spine of steel. That’s what a very key GOP constituency, the Christian right, will be looking for. If a candidate isn’t up to speed or echoes the Obama-Hillary Clinton-John Kerry mindset, he should be prepared for some deeply skeptical voters.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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