The proposition will get one of its first tests this weekend. Nearly every one of the declared and all-but-declared Republican candidates will take the stage at a “conference and strategy session” in Washington for a new group that bills itself as a 21st-century version of the Christian Coalition.
But mobilizing and winning evangelical voters is a vastly different challenge from what it was when they emerged as a political force more than three decades ago. Today’s is a far different political landscape even from 2004, when the bloc that would become known as “values voters” turned out in record numbers for George W. Bush, supporting him for reelection 4 to 1.
Long gone from the front lines are galvanizing leaders such as the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell, who died in 2007, and the Christian Coalition’s Pat Robertson. Today’s pastors are more likely to focus on propagating the Gospel than turning out the vote.
But the potential for a renewal of the movement is there, Republican leaders say, thanks in part to the enthusiasm that conservative Christians have shown for the tea party movement. In a Pew Research Center poll last year, 42 percent of tea party supporters said they agree with the religious right.
Though there may be some tension with the libertarian elements of the tea party, many evangelicals see its emphasis on limited government and fiscal discipline as one that addresses their own yearning for a return to traditional values.
“What’s likely to happen is what a lot of us have wanted to see happen for a long time — a social conservative movement that speaks to a broader set of issues but which never strays from the foundational issues of life and family and marriage,” said longtime political operative Ralph Reed, who as a baby-faced 33-year-old leading the Christian Coalition in 1995 was dubbed “The Right Hand of God” on the cover of Time magazine.
Reed suffered a fall from grace and a defeat in his 2006 bid for Georgia lieutenant governor, hurt by his association with the scandals surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
But he is back again as head of a new organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Its gathering this weekend is scheduled to include a greater number of presidential contenders than showed up for the first debate last month in South Carolina.
White evangelicals have voted overwhelmingly Republican since the 1980s, and exit polls suggested they turned out overwhelmingly in favor of the GOP in last year’s midterm contests. But their level of engagement has varied from election cycle to election cycle.
Many pastors and some of the leading evangelical organizations have in recent years soured on partisan politics.
In the nearly three decades that James Dobson led the Colorado Springs-based evangelical organization Focus on the Family, for instance, it had a large presence in the Republican Party.