Saturday, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz, two of the many candidates whose names are being bandied about for the 2016 presidential race, made a pilgrimage to Iowa to speak at the Family Leadership Summit. There, as part of a nine-hour marathon of speeches to an audience of 1,500 evangelical Christians, Cruz and Santorum joined a host of conservative politicians and public figures—including Donald Trump, that standard-bearer of wingnuttery—in lambasting Obamacare, the Internal Revenue Service, and the GOP establishment. Pastor Rafael Cruz, father of Senator Cruz, spoke vividly and at length about liberals’ attempts to turn the country into a socialist paradise. “Socialism requires that government becomes your god,” he said. “That’s why they have to destroy the concept of God. They have to destroy all loyalties except loyalty to government. That’s what’s behind homosexual marriage.”
More than highlighting the candidates and issues that will drive the 2016 primaries, the event illustrates the waning influence of Christian conservative leaders like Iowa’s Bob Vander Plaats, the summit organizer. Most GOP contenders will seek a blessing from multiple evangelical heavyweights—Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, to name a few—but these are, increasingly, empty rituals. Even if the aging scions of the Christian Right can agree on the best GOP candidate (which, in 2012, they struggled mightily to do), their stamp of approval is far less meaningful for evangelical voters than it was two decades ago.
At the summit, Congressman Steve King, the Iowa arch-conservative, encouraged pastors to defy the Internal Revenue Service, which forbids religious leaders whose churches have tax-exempt status from speaking out on partisan issues, and preach politics from the pulpit. Ted Cruz mocked his Republican colleagues for their failure to repeal Obamacare and suggested that the U.S. reform its tax code by dismantling the IRS. Santorum scolded moderate and libertarian Republicans for abandoning social issues like same-sex marriage. These are red-meat issues for older conservative Christians, but could hurt Republicans among younger and more moderate evangelicals. For example, a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute showed that a slim majority of young white evangelical Protestants supports same-sex marriage.
Other potential 2016 candidates are already in Vander Plaats’ sights, even if they were absent at the summit. Texas Governor Rick Perry attended last year’s Family Leadership Summit and Vander Plaats has spoken approvingly of Senator Rand Paul. Notably, however, Vander Plaats is less enthusiastic about politicians with even a whiff of moderate sympathies; he decried Senator Marco Rubio’s bipartisan work on immigration reform, saying there was “no way” Iowa evangelicals would vote for him in 2016. He also had critical words for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; according to Vander Plaats, Christie's conservative credentials aren’t strong enough to capture the nomination.
George W. Bush was the last Republican candidate who was considered sufficiently socially conservative to garner approval from evangelical leaders like Robertson and Jerry Falwell and still win a general election. In January 2012, faced with the prospect of Mitt Romney—a moderate and a Mormon—as the presumptive Republican nominee, 150 members of the evangelical old guard gathered on a ranch in Texas to reach a consensus on the best alternative to Romney. After mulling their alternatives in the motley GOP field, which included Bachmann, Santorum, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich, the leaders endorsed Santorum, a Catholic with a strong emphasis on social issues and a sharp contrast to Romney the business maven.
Their followers’ response, in the primaries that followed, was mixed. Romney’s eventual nomination remained almost certain; conservative evangelicals’ support for Santorum only helped delay the inevitable until May. But in the general election, nearly eight in ten evangelicals voted for Romney.
“The days of evangelical leaders crowning political princes are well behind us,” says Robert P. Jones, the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit public opinion research organization. “Evangelicals are still a huge part of the GOP base, but they’re no longer taking their cues from a handful of well-known leaders.”
Keeping the spotlight on Iowa is one of the best ways for Christian conservative leaders to retain some influence over the nomination process. But preserving their foothold will be an uphill battle. To Vander Plaats’ chagrin, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, is threatening to do away with the Ames Straw Poll, an event that’s traditionally been important for party fundraising, saying that it has “outlived its usefulness.” The Straw Poll, which was first held in 1979, has been a crucial way for the Christian Right to advance their agenda in the presidential race since 1988, when Pat Robertson pulled off a spectacular first-place finish, setting the tone for the rest of the primary. If the Iowa Republican Party scraps the event, Vander Plaats says, his group is ready to fill the gap with another Family Leadership Summit in 2015. But it wouldn’t be the same kind of media magnet as the Ames Straw Poll, which offers fried butter on a stick as well as GOP candidates.
The extreme rhetoric that revved up the crowd this past weekend isn’t likely to resonate as strongly among mainstream GOP voters or even more moderate evangelicals. If the Family Leadership Summit is any guide, the efforts of potential 2016 candidates like Ted Cruz to secure evangelical leaders’ support—and, by proxy, Christian conservatives’ votes—will define the margins, not the center, of the GOP race.