Is it possible to revive the evangelical political movement into the potent voting bloc it once was?
The answer to that question may help determine who wins the GOP presidential nomination next year, as well as whether it will be possible to defeat Barack Obama come November 2012.
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.
But Jim Daly, who took the reins of the organization in 2005, has turned it in a new, less partisan direction. He has described “the idol of political power” as “one of the errors that we’ve made, to be forthright and honest.”
“Christian leadership has become about the victory, and that’s led to us becoming the predator and the world our prey. That’s not very much a Christian doctrine,” he said at a recent conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank that focuses on religious issues. “I’m very concerned about the politicization of the faith. . . . I think being owned by a party is dangerous.”
This new aversion to politics is particularly pronounced among younger evangelicals.
“Among the older generation, there was a comfortable conflation between faith and partisanship. To be a Christian meant to be a Republican,” said Jonathan Merritt, a young evangelical leader whose father, Atlanta megachurch pastor James Merritt, is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “What you’re finding is not a new evangelical left, but you’re finding a rise of political orphans.”
In 2008, Obama won about a quarter of the white evangelical vote, which was roughly the same share that Democratic nominee John F. Kerry (Mass.) captured four years earlier. But Obama received a third of the vote among young white evangelicals, nearly triple what Kerry had.
Nor is Obama ceding religion to the Republicans in 2012. This month, the administration will roll out a fatherhood initiative and efforts around adoption, issues that evangelicals are also addressing in their own communities. In February, first lady Michelle Obama marked the anniversary of her initiative to fight childhood obesity by giving a speech in a megachurch in Alpharetta, Ga.
Reed says that if there has been any political shift among evangelicals, it will turn out to be nothing more than a youthful flirtation.
“The Grand Canyon that runs through the electorate demographically is ultimately not a profession of faith,” he said. “It’s behavioral. Once they are married, once they have children and once they are going to church weekly, it’s game, set, match.”
More of a problem, Reed said: the 17 million evangelicals who did not show up at the polls in 2008 because they weren’t registered or weren’t interested.
“If we could get half of them to get in the game and get on the field, it would dramatically reshuffle the turnout model — not just on Election Day but in legislative and policy debates as well,” he said.
Although he acknowledged that churches and pastors are less politically oriented than they used to be, Reed said the Internet provides far better tools for political mobilization.
“To be able to target voters and citizens and activists based on where they go, what they purchase, what they read, what they watch — it makes what we did at the Christian Coalition, passing out voter guides, look like a Model T Ford,” he said.
Another difference may be the candidates.
In the Republican presidential primary four years ago, the other GOP candidates for president virtually ceded the religious vote to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. A former minister whom conservative Christians regarded as one of their own, Huckabee vaulted from nowhere to serious contender when he marshaled their votes and won the Iowa caucuses.
Not this time. Potential contenders such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin can claim connections with religious voters.
Contenders are touting their faith credentials at every turn — even, in the case of former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2009 conversion to Catholicism, when that spiritual awakening is a fairly recent one.
Preaching in March from the pulpit of Cornerstone Church, a mega-congregation in San Antonio, Gingrich warned: “I have two grandchildren — Maggie is 11, Robert is 9. I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
One unknown is how the race will be affected by the fact it could have two Mormon contenders: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who officially launched his campaign Thursday, and former Utah governor and China ambassador Jon Huntsman, who is considering a bid. Both, whose religion has been deemed a cult by some Christian fundamentalists, are scheduled to speak at the Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering this weekend.
“Both Huntsman and Romney are going to have to have their moment of truth with evangelicals about Mormonism,” said Warren Smith, associate publisher of World magazine, the nation’s largest Christian newsmagazine. “Right now, they are saying that it doesn’t matter, but that story won’t carry the day with evangelicals if they get further along. Like Obama had his race moment, they will have to have their Mormon moment.”
That moment is not likely to come this weekend. Aides to Huntsman, for instance, say he is likely to talk about his family and values, and to cast the debt and deficit as moral issues — which may not make the sale but at least could get him in the door with evangelical voters.