Land is a leader of the huge, traditional Southern Baptist Convention who advises conservative talk show host Glenn Beck. Wallis is a staple on lists of the country’s most influential religious progressives.
But the men will convene an unusual public “discussion” on Wednesday night in Washington to talk about something upon which they agree: that the 2012 presidential candidates have not focused on core moral issues that for years have broadly defined evangelical voters.
The men, both highly visible (and known to bask in the spotlight), have very different interpretations of an evangelical platform: Wallis is primarily concerned about any budget that cuts life-and-death social service programs for the poor. Land prioritizes the breakup of the traditional family and boosting fatherhood initiatives.
But both men say they are alarmed about seeing GOP candidates compete for who will cut government the most and who will be tougher on unions and immigrants. They say they are worried about candidates from both parties seeking to pull back from engagement overseas, whether that means programs that promote democracy or those that fight AIDS and malaria.
“Too few people running are talking about the connection between the economic crisis and the moral one,” Land said. “No one is talking about the issues in the way we’d like, including the president.”
Wallis added: “Neither party on the budget has made protection of the poor a fundamental principle of deficit reduction.” Among GOP candidates, he said, “there is a general harshness, a meanness, and that’s not even on the issues of abortion and gay marriage.”
Experts on evangelical voting say the discussion Wallis and Land have called Wednesday night at the National Press Club reflects a major change in the landscape of white evangelicals, who make up nearly a quarter of American adults. For nearly a decade, this group was broadly unified under the “compassionate conservative” platform of George W. Bush, for whom a vast majority voted during the 2000s.
Spending overseas. A middle ground on immigration and domestic anti-poverty programs. Funding faith-based groups to boost fatherhood and marriages. This was the Bush doctrine, and although dissatisfied evangelicals were on both the left and the right, the broad middle embraced him and his articulation of Christian thinking.
But today white evangelicals are a group without a candidate, looking more in opinion polls like a pie divided across the GOP field. Although Barack Obama raised his percentage of white evangelical voters over Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry four years earlier, polls show about 70 percent of white evangelicals picking GOP candidates in hypothetical match-ups against Obama, similar to the numbers who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004.
But how will they respond to Mitt Romney’s hardening position on immigrants, or Michele Bachmann’s on foreign aid?
“There is no one in the [GOP] field for evangelicals who has the cadence, the appeal, the pace of Bush,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, who worked for Bush, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. “When you hear them, it’s a clanging sound, a tone-deafness.”
Although polls show white evangelicals very divided — and shifting — on the current GOP candidates, there’s no data clarifying why, which policy positions animate them the most or whether they are responding more to a lack of a person with whom they simply identify.
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio who focuses on religion in politics, said a key element that unified white evangelicals under George W. Bush was his persona.
“It was rooted in the perception of his own religiosity. Whether that’s accurate is another issue, but evangelicals had a very positive perception of Bush as a person,” Green said. That solidified in a key moment, when Bush during a 1999 debate said his favorite political philosopher was Jesus.
“We haven’t had that kind of moment,” Green said.