Winter 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3

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From the Editor:
Apologia pro bloga sua

Men in Green

Turning Over the Bowl in Burma

When Germans Convert

Show Me the Money 


The Faith Factor
by John Green

God's Own Party:

The Primary Field
by Reid P. Vineis

Religion has played like light and shadow over the band of Republican brothers seeking the presidency this campaign season. The early frontrunners seemed to represent a conscious effort on the part of the party establishment to minimize the role of “values voting” at a time when the country seemed to worry about excessive religiosity. Yet, given the power of the evangelical wing of the party, it proved impossible to keep faith out of the picture.

Herewith the trajectory of coverage, candidate by candidate.

John McCain was the clear frontrunner as the race began in earnest last spring. Back in 2000, he blotted his copybook with evangelicals when, after getting kneecapped in the South Carolina primary, he denounced Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance.” This time around, hostility to McCain on the part of social conservatives seemed his biggest hurdle, despite having as pure a record on abortion as any of them could wish.

In October, McCain won the support of Sam Brownback after the Kansas senator folded his own campaign—which had been supported by the pro-life wing of the party. “Despite his lowly poll numbers, Brownback was seen as having a solid network of religious conservative voters in Iowa,” Steven Kraske of the Kansas City Star wrote on November 7. “They are especially valued because of their status as dependable voters, and it’s a bloc McCain has struggled with.”

Yet, that network never seemed to coalesce for him. Struggling to keep his ship afloat after overspending in the summer, McCain turned his attention away from the evangelical-heavy Iowa caucuses to focus on the evangelical-lite New Hampshire primary, his high water mark in the 2000 race.

Throughout the race, McCain conveyed a casual relationship with religion, to the point of flubbing the rather basic question, “What church do you belong to?” As McClatchy’s Matt Stearns reported June 11, “McCain still calls himself an Episcopalian, but he said he began attending North Phoenix Baptist.”

In October, McCain made the mistake of telling interviewer Dan Gilgoff, “I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.” Mainly, he seemed to want nothing more than not to have to talk about the subject.

By year’s end, the McCain campaign experienced what the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby on December 26 called “a remarkable revival”—which managed to push him over the top in New Hampshire. Of course, New Hampshire voters, being New Englanders, weren’t much interested in dealing with religion on the stump either.

Meanwhile, back in October, the AP’s Eric Gorski wrote an important story showing how the war against “radical Islam” As Vision America head Rick Scarborough told him, “It’s the ultimate life issue. If radical Islam succeeds in its ultimate goals, Christianity ceases to exist.”

As the primary campaign turned South, this turned into a McCain talking point with evangelicals in South Carolina. In the January 13 Washington Post, Perry Bacon, Jr. and Juliet Eilperin quoted Sen. Lindsey Graham “touting McCain’s war experience” to the effect: “People of faith want a candidate who can beat radical Islam.” And McCain himself remarked on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes, “Our evangelicals fear more than anything else this rise of radical Islamic extremism. The word isn’t ‘fear,’ they’re deeply concerned about it.”

How many Southern evangelicals would follow this assessment into the McCain camp remained to be seen.

After McCain’s months-long implosion, Rudy Giuliani raced to the head of the pack. America’s Mayor was even more problematic for the religious base of the party. Personally, he seemed like the most cafeteria of Catholics, what with his three marriages and declaration of only occasional church attendance. Worse, he was a pro-choice supporter of gay rights who embraced the idea of gun control.

The idea that a social liberal could be the GOP presidential nominee spurred evangelicals to emergency powwow. Focus on the Family head James Dobson gathered his braves in Salt Lake City on October 6, after which he took to the pages of the New York Times to declare, “If neither of the two major political parties nominates an individual who pledges himself or herself to the sanctity of human life, we will join others in voting for a minor-party candidate.”

Despite the threats, Giuliani was able to bull his way through to an endorsement from the dean of the Religious Right himself. On November 8, New York Times columnist Gail Collins expressed the shock that many journalists felt: “Back in mid-2001, when the mayor  was busy committing adultery, lurching into his divorce and third marriage and rooming with a gay couple he promised to marry as soon as the law allowed, who among us would have imagined that one day he would be endorsed for president by Pat Robertson?”

Giuliani attempted to allay evangelical fears, declaring at the Value Voters Debate, “We may not always agree, but I will give you reason to trust me.” David Brody, the Christian Broadcasting Network’s soft touch, was persuaded: “The case was compelling and if Giuliani keeps making speeches like this, he has a good shot to gather enough social conservatives to his side to win the nomination.”

 As 2007 wore on, social conservatives were mostly given sufficient reason to trust that Giuliani was not their boy. As news of his blemished past began to reach them, and with the rise of Mike Huckabee, they pulled the hem of their garment as far away from him as they could.

Fred Thompson was the Great White Hope of the Religious Right over the summer, when both Brownback and Huckabee were too far back in the pack for the big dogs of the movement to take seriously. The sometime-senator from Tennessee and actor of many parts wasn’t exactly quick off the mark, however, waiting until September 4 to officially declare his candidacy.

On September 6, Dan Balz and Michael Shear of the Washington Post noted that Thompson’s strengths were serving him well: “His Southern roots, conservative message and celebrity appeal from movies and television have already pushed him into second place in most national polls, behind Giuliani.”

It didn’t take long, however, for Thompson’s laconic irreverence and lackadaisical approach to campaigning to suggest that he was less than the sum of his parts. He admitted that he attended church only when he visited his momma back in Tennessee, and startled conservatives by a declaration of support for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill and a refusal to back a constitutional ban on gay marriage (a position subsequently reversed).

In a September 15 column, George Will compared Thompson to the infamous “New Coke,” which was pulled from store shelves 80 days after its release.

On September 19, the AP got its hands on a private email sent by Dobson to his followers that lowered the boom: “He has no passion, no zeal, and no apparent ‘want to.’ And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!”

In response, Thompson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “I’m okay with the Lord and the Lord is okay with me, as far as I can tell”—but the word from above evidently didn’t filter down. In Iowa, his polling numbers bounced between the low teens and high single digits through the Fall, and he ended up with just 11 percent of the caucus vote. Nationally, his drift was just about the same.

From the outset, there was no question that Mitt Romney was a person of faith, but also that, from the standpoint of much of the GOP’s religious base, it was the wrong faith. All the way back in September of 2005, Amy Sullivan wrote a piece for the Washington Monthly entitled, “Mitt Romney’s Evangelical Problem.”

Romney worked hard to solve the problem. “With the Iowa caucuses only a year away, he is working tirelessly for the support of Christian conservatives, Newsweek’s Jonathan Darman wrote in December, 2006, a month before Romney officially declared his candidacy. “In another year, this might be a futile quest given many evangelicals’ conviction that Mormonism is a heretical cult.” 

At first, the strategy enjoyed some success. Airing commercials that emphasized faith and family values, the Romney campaign managed to pull ahead of the rest by double digits in Iowa, where evangelicals constitute better than half the caucus turnout. What’s more, in October the “Mormon candidate” picked up key endorsements at fundamentalist Bob Jones University and from Religious Right eminence Paul Weyrich. The mantra of his evangelical supporters became, “We’re electing a president, not a pastor.”

Suddenly, the Mormon question no longer seemed so pressing. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, floated the notion that Mormonism represented the fourth Abrahamic religion (after Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)—thereby implying that evangelicals needn’t condemn its followers as either heretics or cultists.

But for all the nods of approval from on high, the evangelical rank and file seemed less than completely on board. And as Huckabee began to make his presence felt in the race, such evangelical support as Romney possessed began to stream away.

The question that percolated through the fall was whether Romney would give The Speech—a latter-day version of JFK’s 1960 famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. It seemed that he wanted to avoid doing so if at all possible, although on the stump in New Hampshire in early November he told a questioner, “I sort of like the idea myself. The political advisers tell me no, no, no—it’s not a good idea. It draws too much attention to that issue alone.”

It was the decline in his poll numbers that appeared to persuade the campaign otherwise. “His challenge,” Politico’s Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin wrote on December 4, “will be to allay reservations of evangelicals, a huge bloc in the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina, while not making his own religion the defining issue in the wild race for the Republican presidential nomination.”

Attempting to meet the challenge not, like Kennedy, before a skeptical audience but within the friendly confines of the George H. W. Bush presidential library in College Station, Romney proclaimed, “I do not define my candidacy by my religion.” He did, however, decline to suggest, a la Kennedy, that faith should be a private matter in America. “We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders—in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.”

The Beltway crowd adored the speech, but the heartland remained reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. “Few said it was strong enough to change the minds of evangelicals,” wrote the Des Moines Register’s Shirley Ragsdale on December 7, summing up Iowan reaction. For the crucial voters whose hearts and minds Romney had originally sought out to win, it was too little, too late. They had found their man.

The fresh face in the Republican field got the attention of evangelicals at the Value Voters Debate. As Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on October 20, “[W]ith the party’s best-known candidates yet to galvanize so-called values voters, dark horse Mike Huckabee brought the crowd repeatedly to its feet with a Bible-laced speech urging the faithful not to compromise on core issues such as abortion and marriage.”

But it was Huckabee’s affability and economic populism that made him a media star. In the October 22 issue of Newsweek, the headline on Jonathan Alter’s puff piece was “The GOP’s Best Bet?” Two months later, the magazine devoted its cover story to him with “Holy Huckabee!” Meanwhile, Rolling Stone slugged Mike Taibbi’s November 14 interview, “Our Favorite Right Wing Nut Job,” while the New York Times Magazine put “The Huckabee Factor” on its December 12 cover.

Soon Huckabee was leading polls in Iowa and South Carolina, and nipping at Giuliani’s heels nationwide. He was also terrifying the non-evangelical wings of his party.

On December 29, the Boston Globe’s Susan Mulligan reported on the anti-Huckabee TV ad campaign mounted by the Club for Growth, the advance guard of economic conservatives whom Huckabee had taken to referring to as “The Club for Greed.” Rick Lowry, the young editor of the hoary old conservative National Review, warned that the “unvetted” Huckabee was “manifestly unprepared to be president of the United States” and that his nomination would be “an act of suicide” for the GOP.

As his popularity rose, scrutiny of his past showed that the sunny Baptist crusader might have a darker side. Endorsing him in a December 24 editorial, the Dallas Morning News acknowledged, “His religious conservatism, particularly his past rhetoric on women and gays, can be alarming.” Huckabee also experienced some negative blowback from a Christmas advertisement that appeared to feature a white cross floating subliminally across the frame.

Taking the Iowa caucuses handily but coming out of the New Hampshire primary a not-very-respectable third, Huckabee showed that, as the values candidate of 2008, he still had a long way to go.


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