The Continued Decline of the Religious Right

Christian conservatives in the Republican Party have at times in the past felt that their hard work for the GOP has gone unrewarded. They work their little hearts out during the campaign to get Republicans elected, and then once those Republicans take office, they're given little but table scraps. Sure, the Mexico City policy will get reinstated, they'll get some money funneled to churches, and some other small items here and there, but the big pieces of their agenda languish. Abortion is still legal, gay people continue to walk amongst us, and prayer has not been returned to public schools. And every four years, a bunch of Republican presidential candidates tell them, "Elect me, and I'll fix all this."

But this year, those candidates have barely bothered. The economy has dominated the debate, and opposition to government in any and all its forms has pushed the culture war to the side. Last year, the head of the American Enterprise Institute (the right's No. 2 think tank) wrote a silly but conservative-zeitgeist-capturing book arguing that economic disagreements are the new culture war. So if you're a Christian conservative, you might be feeling a little neglected. Enter Rick Perry:

You'll seldom see a more pure distillation of the religious right's persecution complex than this ad. "I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian," Perry says, as though Christians are an oppressed minority and he's displaying his courage by saying he is one. "But you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion." It goes on from there.

You may not have noticed "Obama's war on religion," and you might be puzzled by the assertion that "our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas." But that's because you're an elitist liberal, and you've closed your eyes to the way the government brings its heavy boot down on the neck of Christians.

One has to understand that as ridiculous as these claims sound, the voters Perry is pleading with absolutely believe them to be true. And this is the most direct attempt by any of the candidates to go after those votes, to say to Christian conservatives, "I will be your sectarian candidate." You hate gays? I'm your man. You want America to be more Christian? Come on board.

But it is obviously not going to work, and not just because Perry has been such a desperately poor candidate. Circumstances have conspired to make the religious right -- as a distinct political entity that can be mobilized in unison during the primary -- essentially irrelevant. Four years ago, Mike Huckabee was able to ride evangelical support to victory in the Iowa caucus. But today, Newt Gingrich -- converted Catholic, thrice-married, admitted adulterer -- is way out in front among Iowa evangelicals, pretty much matching his support with Republicans as a whole. And there doesn't look to be anything Rick Perry can do about it.

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