Indiana has a reputation for embracing traditional values, which is why polls there showing evangelicals may give Donald Trump a key victory can seem so surprising. Yet Indiana for the last two years has been one of the country’s most high-profile battlegrounds over what it means to be a religious conservative.
Conservative voters there are deeply bruised after two divisive recent fights – one over a religious freedom law last year that drew national headlines and another in 2014 over a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The fighting was not so much with liberals but among social conservatives — a group that includes many evangelicals — trying to balance competing rights as well as concerns that jobs could be lost in a discrimination fight. Many religious conservatives feel state GOP leaders completely caved on both issues and are livid. Yet it’s becoming increasingly complicated in diverse 2016 America to come up with simple solutions.
So if you want to understand where religious conservatives are going in this country, Indiana’s vote Tuesday will be pretty key to watch.
First off, Indiana voters aren’t used to playing such a big role in presidential-deciding. Ryan McCann, public policy director at the Indiana Family Institute – which advocates for socially conservative issues – said Tuesday will be “the largest Republican primary maybe ever” in terms of turnout and interest.
McCann said the camps include Trump voters – “people who want to burn the whole thing down” – and Ted Cruz voters, whose main concern is whether the Texas senator is sufficiently independent of the GOP establishment to really push through conservative agenda items he speaks about, including religious liberty protections for conservatives.
“People know Trump has warts, they don’t agree with his moral stances, beliefs, marriages – they don’t like that, but it shows how frustrated they are with the parties,” he said. The 2014 and 2015 disputes, he said made Indiana feel it was being “used as a test for the rest of the country.”
White evangelicals – who tend to be GOP-leaning — make up by far the largest faith community, comprising 26 percent of the state, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. That’s compared to the national figure of 17 percent. The percent of Indianans who identify as Republicans, or as ideologically conservative is the same as the national average.
However it’s a blend of the American South — Indiana is bordered by Kentucky in the south – with a strong evangelical presence and a more urban north that’s classic pragmatic Midwestern conservativism, said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame near South Bend, Ind.
“It’s a myth that it’s a wildly red, very conservative state. It leans Republican but within that you find these divides over social and fiscal issues,” he said.
Indiana also has a national reputation for its successful blend of faith and public policy when it comes to philanthropy. Perhaps the country’s best-known schools of philanthropy is at Indiana University and has a strong faith component. Former longtime Indianapolis mayor Steve Goldsmith was a well-known advocate for faith-based funding of social service efforts.
But the disunity among the state’s religious conservatives started to really surface in a national way in 2014. That’s when Indiana’s GOP-majority House voted to approve a constitutional amendment that would recognize only marriage between one man and one woman – but took out a second part saying no other similar legal entity (such as civil unions) would be valid. Republicans who amended it voiced concern about competing rights and harming the state’s business climate, but many social conservatives were angry. The effort later died when the GOP-led Senate wouldn’t put the measure on Indiana’s ballot — a requirement in Indiana for any constitutional amendment.
Things really boiled over last year when Indiana became one of the first recent states to pass a religious freedom law aimed at protecting the right of religious conservatives to fight what they see as burdens on their exercise of religion. Opponents, including the NCAA and Apple CEO Tim Cook among many others, made the case that the law was aimed at LGBT people. As a result of a huge national outcry, a later additional bill became law that provided protections for LGBT people. Social conservatives – including many evangelical leaders — blamed the two top GOP leaders who proposed that later bill for gutting the intent of the religious freedom law.
Indiana conservatives remain bitterly divided on the 2014 and 2015 fights, with some feeling the GOP establishment — which includes many social conservatives — sold out. That makes some wary of supporting a D.C. insider like Cruz. However Trump has no political record and his statements regarding everything from gay marriage and transgender rights to abortion have wavered; he is hardly a social conservative stalwart. Support for Trump among religious conservatives, some experts say, shows a possible reshuffling of priorities among this group. Immigration and middle class jobs — Trump topics — are becoming as important or more as conservative social positions. Part of this is pragmatism, with the country liberalizing on many social issues.
Jay Hein, a former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and president of the Indiana-based Sagamore Institute think tank, said the state was damaged politically from the religious freedom fight and is still suffering from it. Tuesday’s primary and the subsequent governor’s race will show a lot, he said, about where conservatism is heading.
“I don’t know where we’ll come down. We got caught up in events. Things got more vocal and contentious in Indiana because it was a battleground and we weren’t prepared for that.”
The disputes among social conservatives, and evangelicals in particular, will have long-lasting affects, experts say. That is evident this week in Indiana, with its high profile primary.
“It’s very likely post-Trump –whether he wins or loses — that we will be more likely to talk about distinctions within the evangelical community,” Campbell said.