The appointment of Moore, 32, as “special faith adviser” follows the news earlier this month that Marco Rubio picked another high-profile evangelical millennial to do faith outreach: Eric Teetsel. Teetsel led a project called the Manhattan Declaration, a major effort that has brought together conservative evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox Christians on traditional marriage, religious liberty and “the sanctity of life.” He also worked with the American Enterprise Institute on a project to get college students interested in the intersection between Christianity and free enterprise.
Jeb Bush earlier this year brought on prominent evangelical attorney Jordan Sekulow, 33, to help with outreach to social conservatives. Sekulow runs the American Center for Law and Justice, which was founded by evangelist Pat Robertson to promote conservative Christian legal perspectives.
What will constitute faith outreach in the 2016 race already seems extremely complex, with issues from the Black Lives Matter movement to refugee policy to fighting Islamic State groups all framed in both secular and religious terms — leading to different conclusions, depending on one’s perspective.
White evangelicals make up a significant percentage of voters in early primary states, and the GOP field is almost completely made up of self-described religious Christian candidates. That’s a switch from recent elections, when top candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney avoided talking much about their religious beliefs — for different reasons. Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist, but his effusive, God-praising communication style has huge appeal to evangelicals, even if they aren’t familiar with particular Adventist beliefs.
“I think the evangelical vote has never had a more interesting, optimistic moment,” said Moore, who said many millions of self-described evangelicals didn’t vote in the last election and are on the hunt for a candidate. Several candidates for the 2016 race had pastors for fathers, and most have spoken deeply and openly about their Christian faith. Evangelicals “have moved on from being single-issue voters, and that’s why the relationship between the Republican Party and evangelicals is so much stronger. I don’t hear, as you did in previous elections, [evangelicals] complaining about ‘establishment candidates versus us,'” Moore said.
The three faith advisers all have in common significant public advocacy for religious liberty, which conservatives frame as traditional rights being bulldozed by liberalizing changes like gay marriage. Carson earlier this year drew huge praise from many conservatives when he said President Obama had “betrayed” Christians by saying they shouldn’t see themselves as above persecuting others.
How Carson will position himself if he stays at the top of the field isn’t clear. He said earlier this fall he wouldn’t support a Muslim for president, but Moore said Tuesday that Carson doesn’t want “to be brought into mudslinging.”
“We have to get past in our political system this ravenous instinct to discount everyone and instead look at what everyone brings to the table. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes they say positive or negative things, sometimes they speak precisely or imprecisely,” Moore said.
Moore said young evangelicals are especially drawn to the fact that Carson hadn’t intended a political career and, as a result, seems more authentic and trustworthy.
People who identify themselves as evangelicals comprise more than 40 percent of the GOP primary electorate. My colleague, veteran political reporter Karen Tumulty, made this point about evangelical voters a few weeks ago: “At this point, it is difficult to predict whether they will coalesce around one or a few candidates in the enormous GOP field, or whether their support will be dispersed.”
Michael Wear, an evangelical writer who directed faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 campaign and consults informally on faith issues to people from both parties, said evangelicals are huge and complex.
“There is no one ‘evangelicalism.’ How candidates often fail is they hire someone who claims to understands evangelicals without knowing the perspectives beyond their own group.”
Asked why he thought all the “faith advisers” hired by GOP candidates so far come from evangelical communities, Wear said this: “In the same way many in Democratic circles hear ‘faith outreach’ and think of ‘black church,’ in the GOP when they hear it, they think ‘evangelical.'”
Wear said he wasn’t aware of any Democratic candidates for president who had created a faith outreach strategy. Since Obama first ran, the slice of religiously unaffiliated Americans has shot up more than 7 percentage points to around 23 percent. This could lead Democrats to be even less focused on connecting with the concerns and motivations of religious voters, Wear said. Democrats have an opportunity to organize and mobilize mainline Christians and others around topics that these believers see in strongly religious terms, including poverty, racial disparity and global warming, Wear said.