Dana Milbank
Opinion writer January 20, 2012

God knows what has become of the religious right.

The movement of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson has been in decline for some time, but recent events suggest that they are wandering in the political wilderness.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

A fresh symptom of the trouble came this month during a meeting of 150 evangelical leaders in Texas, where the deeply divided deacons of the religious right had to take three votes before opting to endorse Rick Santorum, who has no real chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination.

Richard Land, a top figure in the Southern Baptist Convention, explained to NPR the choice of Santorum over Mitt Romney this way: “Before we marry the guy next door, don’t you think we ought to have a fling with a tall, dark stranger and see if he can support us in the manner to which we’d like to be accustomed?”

A fling with a tall, dark stranger? Marrying the guy next door? Paging Marcus Bachmann!

Things have not gone well generally in this electoral cycle for the once-vaunted movement. Preferred candidates, particularly Mike Huckabee, didn’t run. The front-runner belongs to a church that some Christian conservatives consider a cult. The one religious conservative remaining in the race, Santorum, has virtually no chance. Michele Bachmann flopped. Rick Perry flamed out — and, upon exiting the race, endorsed Newt Gingrich the same day that the former House speaker was publicly accused by a former wife of seeking an “open marriage.”

Perry’s flameout, in particular, shows the movement’s diminished clout and engagement. When he entered the race to Tim Tebow-like expectations last summer, the Texas governor and his wife spoke about how he had been called by God to run. “There are people seeing that burning bush,” Anita Perry recalled telling her husband. At her urging, Perry “threw that fleece out there” — a biblical reference to asking God for direction. “He truly felt,” she said, “like he was called to do this.”

When his candidacy began to collapse, Perry agreed with his wife’s assessment that he was being “brutalized” in part “because of his faith.” When he placed fifth in the Iowa caucuses, he went home to Texas to decide his course “with a little prayer and reflection.” The answer to his prayers was to stay in the race — though only, it turned out, for a couple of weeks.

“God didn’t say, ‘I want you running,’ ” Perry clarified this week. “He sure didn’t tell me I was going to win.”

A few years ago, such an overtly evangelical candidate would have been formidable because of his close ties to the movement. But not this year. Religious conservatives have been withdrawing as a political force.

“It puts a lie to the idea that these people are going to take over America,” said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelical in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank. “They have a lessened expectation about what politics can do to change society.”

About a quarter of the U.S. population is evangelical and born-again Christian, but that doesn’t mean they vote primarily on social issues. In Iowa, 57 percent of Republican caucus-goers identified that way, CNN polling found, but only 13 percent of caucus-goers called abortion the most important issue, compared with 42 percent picking the economy (the top issue regardless of religion). In New Hampshire, The Post reported, only 6 percent of Republican primary voters thought abortion was most important.

Even the movement’s leaders can’t seem to keep their focus — as evidenced by the evangelicals’ three rounds of balloting in Texas.

Santorum called their endorsement “miraculous” — but it barely registered in the polls in South Carolina. For religious conservatives, who in 2008 were forced to accept John McCain (a man who once branded Robertson and Falwell “forces of evil”), it’s shaping up to be another year of compromise and disappointment.

That was Perry’s message, as he departed the race Thursday with a rambling farewell speech and endorsement of Gingrich. “There is forgiveness for those who seek God,” he said of Gingrich, “and I believe in the power of redemption, for it is a central tenet of my Christian faith.”

Perry credited “a loving God” and a supporter he identified as “my Christian brother.” But he spoke about faith with less bravado. “I began this race with a sense of calling,” he said, but “a calling never guarantees a particular outcome.”

For Perry and the religious right, it was a welcome acknowledgment that God is no longer calling them to dominate the political landscape.

danamilbank@washpost.com