The GOP's Religious Litmus
January 03, 2007
Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success (John Wiley & Sons). The views expressed here are his own.
The news media love to write stories about how the Democrats are fractured, squabbling and in disarray (and their recent electoral victories stemmed the flow of such stories not a bit). But today it is the Republicans who are in danger of tearing themselves apart.
Although the Democratic presidential contenders have been getting most of the attention of late, the Republican nomination fight will have more far-reaching consequences for their party—who will dominate it, what they will demand and what they will receive in return. The conservative coalition, while extraordinarily successful over the past few decades, has always contained the internal tensions that can explode when a period of absolute power is followed by a period of exile.
Its strength was a common understanding of the importance of power—something those on the left often lacked. The business conservatives concerned only about taxes and regulation, the religious right conservatives consumed with abortion and homosexuality, the gun nuts worshipping at the altar of the Second Amendment—all knew that when their side controlled the levers of power they would be taken care of.
But with Congress gone and George W. Bush’s tenure limping toward its end (one imagines White House staffers working on their résumés between games of computer solitaire), the various pieces of the movement can no longer be content with vague assurances from potential leaders that their efforts will be rewarded. The religious conservatives in particular—the ones who make the small-dollar contributions and provide the ground forces that do the actual work leading up to Election Day—are likely to be unwilling to repeat their past mistakes. After working their hearts out twice for George W. Bush, they got the ultraconservative judges they wanted, but not much else—no Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, no Ten Commandments hung on the wall of every federal building, no push for school prayer or repeal of no-fault divorce laws. And friendly judges are an investment in the future, one that doesn’t sate one’s ideological hunger in the short term.
So the religious right will be looking for some serious promises from presidential candidates before it lines up behind one of them. And that’s where things get complicated.
To see how this issue could play out, one must understand first that American Christianity is in a period of extraordinary transition, one that has huge political implications. Where Protestants used to distrust Catholics and vice-versa, a new alliance has grown up across denominations, linking conservatives of various sects. The real religious conflicts today occur not between but within denominations, over issues like the ordination of women or the blessing of gay unions.
The consequence is that for many evangelical conservatives, the question has become not whether a candidate is a Baptist or a Lutheran or a Methodist, but something both broader and more vague. What they want is not a statement of sectarian loyalty, but a general sense that the candidate shares with them a conservative religious Christianity. This can be communicated in somewhat subtle ways, but it must be communicated repeatedly.
Think of George W. Bush. As Ayelish McGarvey wrote in an important article in The American Prospect (that didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved), despite the popular perception, Bush is not an evangelical Christian:
Yet through a combination of high-profile attestations to faith (when asked in a debate who his favorite political philosopher is, he answered “Christ”) and nearly endless use of religious language and references to religious texts, Bush convinced evangelicals that he was right with God.
In 2007, you don’t have to be a Southern Baptist to do the same thing. When conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics began to build a political alliance, it opened the door to people of any Christian sect to join in. But the religious right is more insistent than ever that candidates are not just on board with their agenda but that they demonstrate their personal commitment to a particular view of God.
So far, much of the discussion about religion and the Republican nomination has concerned former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, possessor of the squarest jaw and firmest hair of all the candidates. In the end, Romney’s biggest problem may be not his religion—Romney is a Mormon—but statements he made during his past races in Massachusetts, in which he was far more liberal on the issues of abortion and gay rights than he is today. But while it’s true that many evangelical Protestants regard the Mormon Church as an ungodly cult, in the end the Republican with the real religion problem may not be Romney but John McCain.
This issue has gone virtually unnoticed to this point, but John McCain has a potentially fatal religion problem: He’s just not a particularly religious person. While I have no idea what he believes in his heart, religious talk has never been part of his public utterances in the quarter-century he has spent in office. He doesn’t do the photo-ops outside church on Sunday mornings that candidates are so known for. McCain is an Episcopalian (old-line, moderate denomination); when The New York Daily News called his office a few months ago to inquire about his church attendance, one spokesperson couldn’t say whether the senator attends church. (Another spokesperson later told the reporter, “Sen. McCain goes to church every Sunday that he can. He is devout, but very private about it.”) Add that to his very public and nasty squabbles with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson during the 2000 primaries, and any effort on McCain’s part to start throwing around hosannas would immediately be seen as insincere pandering.
At the same time, the religious conservatives will be the group whose support he most needs. They were the ones who pushed George W. Bush past McCain in 2000, and if they unite behind one candidate other than McCain, he could be in real trouble. At some point, a reporter or perhaps a citizen at a town hall meeting in Iowa or New Hampshire will ask McCain this question: “Senator, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior? Are you born again?” The true answer is obviously “No,” but in a Republican presidential primary, that’s the wrong answer.
It easy (and, let’s face it, fun) to note that when it comes to the personal sexual “morality” that the right spends so much time fretting about, the prime Republican contenders are not exactly a group of high achievers. McCain has admitted being unfaithful to his first wife. Rudy Giuliani is currently on his third marriage, and is known not just for being unfaithful but doing so in an positively sadistic way: While his wife was back in Gracie Mansion, he paraded down a Manhattan street in front of photographers with his mistress, and his wife found out that their marriage was over when Rudy held a press conference to announce it. Also on his third marriage is potential candidate Newt Gingrich—if you’re keeping score, Newt’s current wife is the young congressional staffer with whom he was having an affair while helping to engineer Bill Clinton’s impeachment over a consensual affair; it was the first wife whom he served with divorce papers while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.
During his rise to power, Gingrich was never much of a Bible-thumper. But he has undergone something of a pre-election conversion. Instead of offering himself up as a preacher-in-chief, Gingrich’s latest act is as a kind of historian/theologian, complete with a quickie book called Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation’s History and Future , and a recently aired Fox News special he hosted called “One Nation Under God: Religion and History in Washington, D.C.” (If your appetite has been whetted, you can go to www.newt.org and get yourself some Newt-tastic podcasts, which they call “iNewts.” I kid you not.)
Will the conservative evangelicals who hold so much power in Republican primaries buy it? It may be too early to tell, but it is important to note that the larger evangelical community is hardly monolithic. Within it, though, it is the most uncompromising and radical among them who drive the Republican train.
Not long ago, Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren, one of the most important evangelical leaders in America, invited Sen. Barack Obama to participate in an event about fighting AIDS in Africa, a cause in which Warren is enlisting his flock. Amazingly, some far-right activists attacked Warren for allowing Obama into his church, because Obama supports abortion rights. Though Warren—who is staunchly conservative on most issues—brushed them off, it was clear that the most extreme of the religious right will be making plenty of noise.
They’ll be demanding fealty from Republican presidential candidates—and will likely get it more often than not. In the process, they’ll alienate more moderate religious voters left and right. At the AIDS event at Warren’s Saddleback Church, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who is hoping to be the candidate of the religious right, looked at Obama from the stage and said with a self-righteous smile, “Welcome to my house.” When Obama took the stage he looked back to Brownback and shamed him: “This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”
Obama is fluent enough in Christianity to wow the crowd at even conservative churches (and, for the record, the most religiously active of the Democratic candidates is probably Hillary Clinton). But it is within the GOP that the real piety contest will take place. Brownback will have lots of company: Romney seems to want to be the religious right’s candidate, and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—an actual Baptist minister—could be a compelling candidate as well. The real question is whether a candidate like McCain—hardly an atheist, but someone who has never before put his faith front and center before the voters—could get past Republican primary voters, and what it would take for him to do so will turn the rest of the country off.