The “evangelical crackup” predicted in the pages of the New York Times Magazine may not be upon us, but neither is the moment when social conservatives coalesce around a single candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Instead leaders and allies of the religious right seem as divided as ever. Just last week, Paul Weyrich endorsed Mitt Romney. The American Family Association’s Donald Wildmon came out for Mike Huckabee. Sam Brownback endorsed former rival John McCain. And Pat Robertson scored the biggest headlines with his endorsement of Rudy Giuliani.
Now it has been reported that the National Right to Life Committee is giving its endorsement to Fred Thompson. Some fifty days ahead of the Iowa caucuses, the social right is split at least five different ways if not more (Pat Robertson’s 1988 Iowa campaign chair is working for Ron Paul).
The endorsements themselves are causing debate among social conservatives. “Excuse me while I yawn,” wrote one columnist for a Republican website in response to Robertson’s announcement. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson argued that evangelicals have moved on from the style of religious right represented by the 700 Club host.
Others criticized the National Right to Life Committee for getting behind Thompson, in light of his opposition to the human life amendment and muddled comments on abortion policy in a recent Meet the Press interview. Some commentators questioned why Thompson trumped Romney, given the pro-life movement’s openness to converts in the past.
The conventional wisdom is that many religious conservatives are broadening their focus beyond issues like abortion, homosexuality, and marriage to include such concerns as poverty and the environment. This is partly true, but also easily exaggerated. So far, the trend is much more pronounced among the evangelical elite — emerging intellectuals, academics at Christian colleges, some of the celebrity megachurch pastors — than the grassroots.
To the extent that rank-and-file evangelicals are more willing than other Republican voters to support government solutions to poverty and environmental problems, this shift hasn’t come at the expense of their social conservatism. There is little evidence that Mike Huckabee’s economic populism is a bigger part of his appeal than his support for traditional marriage or opposition to abortion. And unlike traditionalist Catholic voters, who tend to be social conservatives but not much enamored of either free market economics or Bush-style foreign policy, evangelicals still overwhelmingly identify as Republicans.
If there is a social conservative crack-up, it may be over tactics rather than goals. Notice that Robertson deemphasized social issues in his endorsement of Giuliani, focusing instead on “the defense of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists” as the election’s “overriding issue.”
Brownback, despite his reputation as a newfangled “whole life” religious conservative, played up abortion in his endorsement of McCain. The Kansan praised his Senate colleague’s “consistent 24-year pro-life record of protecting the rights of the unborn,” placing it squarely in the context of other human rights crusades McCain has supported.
One approach seeks to work in tandem with the broader conservative movement, focusing on such common-ground issues as judges and the war on terror. The other attempts to fight for issues like abortion in the same way other Republicans inveigh against “Tax Hike Mike” or try to sniff out softness on the Iraq war. One strategy is aimed at reserving a place at the table, the other a spot on the agenda.
The composition of the 2008 field seems almost designed to exacerbate such tactical differences. The frontrunner was as liberal on social issues in New York City as he is now friendly to religious conservatives in primary states. One conservative alternative has raised taxes in his home state but not much money for his campaign; the other was pro-choice until 2005; a third apparently shares the frontrunner’s view that pro-lifers want to put women in jail; the fourth is, well, John McCain.
Social conservatives haven’t always handled this challenging political environment very adroitly (or at least not always to your correspondent’s liking). But even Machiavelli would have had trouble fostering a consensus under these conditions. It’s an even more difficult task for a constituency that has been instructed not to put trust in princes.
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