Sorting out the Religious Right (R)

One of the main components of the Republican base is the Christian right. These evangelicals and social conservatives place a premium on addressing the issues of restricting abortion, banning gay marriage, keeping God in the public square, and restricting stem cell research. Despite President Bush's failures (Katrina, managing the war in Iraq, spending) and controversies (the Valerie Plame saga, domestic wiretapping), the Christian right generally gives Bush high marks because of two obscure men: John Roberts and Samuel Alito, Bush's conservative nominees for the Supreme Court.

As we enter the twilight of Bush's presidency, the Christian right is now looking for Bush's successor. Given that the next vacancies on the Supreme Court are likely to come from liberal retirements (Justices Ginsburg and Stevens), one would think that Christian Republican voters would pay special attention to the current field of Republican presidential candidates and coalesce behind the candidate that best represents their views. Given the size of their ranks and their ability to haul in campaign cash, the Christian right is a powerful wing of the Republican Party that most Republican politicians actively court.

But something seems wrong this campaign season. The top six Republicans (Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson) all have major flaws that prevent conservatives in general from throwing their weight behind any single candidate. In turn, that makes the Republican field particularly difficult to analyze.

Rudy Giuliani, who is on his third wife, seems hawkish enough on defense and has a 9-11 halo, but he has dressed in drag and has moderate to liberal views on abortion, gay marriage, and guns. Mike Huckabee is a credible conservative, but the antitax wing of the party has serious reservations about him and he is dogged by perceptions that he can't raise money and he can't win the general election. John McCain has a long record of conservative accomplishments, but he has angered the Republican base with his views on campaign finance reform and illegal immigration and alienated evangelicals when he refered to leaders such as Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance". Ron Paul is staunchly pro-life and a fiscal hawk, but his libertarian views put him out of step with traditional Republicans. Mitt Romney's personal biography allows him to appear as a family values Republican, but his religion matters to evangelicals and his rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail is quite different from his previous rhetoric from his governor and Senate races in Massachussetts. Fred Thompson was supposed to be the conservative savior for Republicans who liked "none of the above," but he has tended to underwhelm on the campaign trail and he has made statements suggesting that he does not fully understand some of the issues and/or is not as conservative as people had originally made him out to be.

So I would expect that support for any of these candidates is soft. This confusion and fragmentation apparently characterizes the Christian right as well. Consider the endorsement race. Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani. The National Right to Life Committee endorsed Thompson, although Focus on the Family founder James Dobson is strongly against Thompson. Bob Jones University Chancellor Dr. Bob Jones III endorsed Romney. Former presidential candidate and evangelical favorite Sam Brownback threw his support behind McCain. And then there are rumors that James Dobson may endorse Huckabee.

What does this all mean? For one, it means that ideological purity might not be as important as electability. This would explain Giuliani's high level endorsement and Huckabee's lack thereof, although Huckabee is much stronger in Iowa than Giuliani is. It may also mean that past legislative accomplishments matter more than rhetoric and promises about the future. This would explain Thompson's endorsement, as the NRLC cited his previous votes on abortion in the Senate at their reason for supporting him while disregarding the federalist views he expressed recently on Meet the Press. However, this would not explain the Romney endorsement. It may also mean that the Christian right is more diverse than pundits realize in terms of their priorities. Does this mean that a Democrat could attract evangelical support? It could also mean that Hillary Clinton is influencing evangelicals just like she's influencing Republicans in general. This would explain Romney's endorsement, as Dr. Jones said "this is all about beating Hillary." This naturally begs the question of what would happen if Clinton were to lose the Democratic presidential nomination.

There are still too many candidates in the race to make sense of this. But there are a few things that could happen that would help clear things up a bit:

1. Hillary Clinton's lead could become even more precarious. If Republicans begin to doubt that Clinton will win the nomination, how will this affect Giuliani and his endorsement from Pat Robertson?

2. The annual "War on Christmas." This seems to be a favorite of Fox News and religious conservatives. Will a Republican be tripped up on the campaign trail by a question about "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays?" Could that be a tiebreaker that moves evangelicals from one Republican to another?

3. A surprise Supreme Court vacancy. Should Justice Stevens retire before the race for the Republican nomination is settled and Bush appoint a new conservative justice who gets approved by the Democratic Senate, would evangelicals' political agenda be fulfilled? Replacing Stevens with a conservative justice would likely be enough to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which is a major goal of evangelicals. Would these evangelicals further mobilize to pack the Supreme Court with a possible sixth anti-Roe justice? If so, who would they coalesce behind?

4. Fourth quarter fundraising totals. If Ron Paul or Mike Huckabee turns heads with their fundraising in December, will that dry up evangelical support for candidates like John McCain and Fred Thompson? This is not to say that evangelicals will support Ron Paul, but it would allow them to question the wisdom of supporting Thompson if Paul can raise more money than he can.

5. The Iowa results. The Iowa caucuses are less than two months away. What will happen if Mike Huckabee places a strong second or beats Mitt Romney and wins the contest outright? Will evangelicals view this as unimpeachable evidence that Huckabee, not Romney, is the most viable candidate who represents their views?

Stay tuned.


Nikki said...

It is true that the religious right excludes Mormons from being a legitimate Christian religion........but why is it that Harry Reid isn't questioned continuously on his Mormon beliefs?

Anthony Palmer said...

Hi Nikki.

The reason why Harry Reid isn't grilled on his Mormon beliefs is because he only has to answer to the voters of Nevada. He's not running for president. And plus, I'm sure Nevada has a higher concentration of Mormons than most other states in the nation simply because of its proximity to Utah.

Do you know Rep. Keith Ellison from Minnesota? He is a Muslim. One Virginia congressman grilled him on that, but I don't remember his name. Anyway, should Keith Ellison ever run for president, I expect him to be raked over the coals just like Mitt Romney is.

Think about why Obama is having to fend off rumors about him being a Muslim and deal with questions about being "Black enough." Think about why Clinton is having to deal with gender-related questions. I think it's just a matter of people not being comfortable with candidates who don't fit the traditional mold of what a president "should" look like or how he or she "should" worship.

Thanks for the comment.

Nikki said...

Hi Anthony I enjoy your writing and I would like to put a link to your blog on my blog, if you don't mind.........Nikki

Anthony Palmer said...

Hi again, Nikki.

I think Romney's religion would be less of an issue if he were running as a Democrat, at least in the primaries. Evangelical Christians generally don't vote for Democrats to begin with, so he wouldn't have to answer to them so much. Were Romney a Democrat, he'd essentially be ceding the South to the GOP nominee anyways (Massachussetts AND Mormon just won't play in Georgia against a Republican). But as a Republican, even if he doesn't win, at least he forces people to think seriously and honestly about this.

Kennedy had to do the same thing regarding his Catholicism back in 1960. Rudy Giuliani isn't having to address this issue as much because I think voters have become more comfortable with the idea of a Catholic in the White House. After all, it's already been done.

Harry Reid would probably have to endure the same thing Romney is if he were running for president as a Republican. As a senator, he's fine. Nevadans are comfortable with Reid as Reid. The Mormonism issue doesn't matter to them.

The same is true for Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. He's openly homosexual, but he keeps getting reelected by his constituents. I am sure that if he were running for president, he'd be asked about this every day and would probably drop out because of all the pressure. But the voters of his Massachusetts district are comfortable with him, and because of their liberalism, his homosexuality isn't much of an issue to them. Nationally is a different story, however.

Religion is just one of the many "barriers" that a lot of liberals talk about. Others include sexuality, race, disability, or even height. Do you think Americans would ever vote for someone who was paralyzed even if that person had tons of experience and charisma? Liberals are right in that these barriers exist, but conservatives are also right in that we should have more faith in people to do the right thing. I guess the best thing we can do is just encourage everyone to try.

I will happily add your blog to my blogroll. Thanks again for the comment.

Nikki said...

I also do believe that Harry Reid doesn't get hammered because he is liberal. Also he does seem to get headlines as The Speaker of the House and he makes comments contrary to his Mormon beliefs which I find interesting. he spoke at BYU a while ago and it was of course all over the papers here (Utah). He basically called Mormons narrow minded and influenced too much by leaders of the passed like Ezra Taft Benson who was the Secratary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, a Staunch Republican. While our belief system definately influences our political philosophy leaders have never publicly announced party affiliation etc. Though there has been Church intervention when it comes to moral issues such as gay marriage and gambling. The Church did send its members out in California and Nevada a few years ago when there was a vote on the laws in those state to change the definition of marriage during the Clinton administration. While Harry Reid is probably left alone in the public arena, within his religious arena he is ridiculed. Admittedly so, I have taken my cracks at him!!
I don't think Americans would vote for someone in a wheel chair, like FDR, just because I think Americans are into the "movie star" image. While Bush was inarticulate and deemed to be lower in intelligence than MOST, I think THAT in itself was embarassing to Americans to not have a smooth talker like Clinton. However there would be those sanctimonious liberals that would support Christopher Reeve just because it would mean they were open minded!!
PS. I find myself questioning my grammar and watching my spelling since you are a professor AAAHHHH! The anxiety!! Please forgive any grammatical and spelling errors!! I tend to write like I talk.....which is probably a no no!!!