LUTZ, FLORIDA— On the last Sunday before the Florida primary, Newt Gingrich bowed his head at Exciting Idlewild Baptist Church, a megachurch in a suburb north of Tampa. As the remaining Republican candidates scramble to reach as many voters as humanly possible before Tuesday's all-important primary, every chance to preen before a captive audience is a golden opportunity. And no audience is more glued to their seats than devout Christians on a Sunday.
Most parishioners appeared unaware that a celebrity was scheduled to be in their midst. When Gingrich stepped off his bus, reporters formed a swarm that enveloped him as he rushed inside the sanctuary. He walked in quickly, ignoring the media flock as he huddled in close conversation with the church's senior pastor, Ken Whitten. Gingrich made no remarks once inside the church, but he sat in the front center pew where the thousands of congregants could see him sing and sway. When Pastor Whitten recognized Gingrich, the church cameraman blasted a Gingrich close-up on the church’s twin screens. "I want to thank the former speaker of the United States House of Representatives," Whitten said. "Thank you for putting your name on the line. We believe what makes a good Christian makes a good citizen at the same time. So we pray for you, have prayed for you, will continue to pray for you."
Gingrich’s choice of megachurch—and there are many in Florida to choose from—was no accident. Idlewild is the kind of congregation this year’s GOP contenders have been courting. It falls into the tradition of the old-school Southern Baptist churches of the Jerry Falwell days. Many worshippers wouldn't have looked out of place in a slightly modernized version of The Lawrence Welk Show. There may have been no speaking in tongues or convulsing in the aisles (though one elderly gentleman near Gingrich did faint), but there was no doubt that the Baptist crowd was there for old-time religion; the service began with an assistant pastor in white robes booming forth from a recessed pool that glowed with heavenly light from the top of the stage. He proceeded to baptize two children and one middle-aged woman, each asked to declare their devotion to Jesus before they were dunked backward into the cleansing waters. A visiting pastor delivered the day's sermon, focused on the evils of abortion and the righteousness of those who carry pregnancies to term.
Once the hour-long service concluded, a processional formed, not to greet the senior pastor but to shake Gingrich's hand as he stood outside the sanctuary, in front of Exciting Idlewild Baptist’s Starbucks outlet. Gingrich has spoken often about his spiritual awakening on the campaign trail—born a Southern Baptist, he converted to Catholicism two years ago and got serious about his faith and the redemption it offered for his past personal sins. In South Carolina’s primary, he won nearly half of the evangelical vote.
Religion has played an outsize role in Republican politics since evangelical pastors began to encourage their congregations to go forth and campaign in the 1970s, and the 2012 primary has been no exception. Only front-runner Mitt Romney—who each year tithes millions of dollars to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a body many evangelicals view as fake Christianity—has paid little heed to the old vanguards of the religious right. Though Catholic by practice, Rick Santorum's public worship is more akin to the heart-on-your-sleeve spirit of evangelicalism. The culture-warrior won the evangelical old guard's approval when a Texas gathering of 150 endorsed him a few weeks ago. The other candidates, including born-again Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, the early favorite of evangelical-right leaders, have embraced the personhood movement and pledged to "end Obama's war on religion," a torch Gingrich carried at the last debate.
"One of the reasons I am running is there has been an increasingly aggressive war against religion and in particular against Christianity in this country," Gingrich said, "largely by a secular elite and the academic news media and judicial areas. And I frankly believe it's important to have some leadership that stands up and says, enough."
The tone was different in 2008, when Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee struck out in a somewhat new direction. Though he still palled around with the old agents of intolerance and hewed to traditional views on abortion and gay marriage, he also appealed to the Rick Warren sect, the new-style evangelicals who care more about “compassion issues” related to the poor than demonizing people's sexual acts. Before he moved right to try to capture traditional fundamentalist voters, Huckabee talked about protecting God’s planet against climate change and called for a compassionate approach to immigration. For a moment, it looked as if this might be the new direction for evangelical politics, particularly as younger generations—more moderate in their social views—became active and replaced the baby boomers stuck in their culture-war mentality.
That time may still come, but it's not here yet; the old vanguard of the religious right remains the prime target for the Republican candidates. From their one-upmanship on opposition to LGBT rights to suggesting churches are a better distributor for social welfare (a favorite line for Ron Paul to refute criticism of his free-market naiveté), this year’s field has been crowded with Pat Robertson wannabes.
The Reverend Joel C. Hunter, pastor at Central Florida’s 12,000-member Northland, a nondenominational megachurch, is part of the new guard—and four years ago, he backed Huckabee. He has moved away from Republican politics since, saying, “I can't be represented by a party that seems less and less compassionate, more and more accusatory." He still believes that social-justice issues, which transcend partisan divides, will increasingly move evangelical voters. This year, though, he believes the country’s economic distress made people of all faiths look inward, rather than outward toward broader social and political horizons.
"There's enough economic uncertainty that it raises the level of alarm and fear to where you just start thinking about mostly your own group," Hunter says. "It's the easiest route to popularity and subcultural unity to find an enemy." Which is precisely what Newt “I Hate Food Stamps” Gingrich is banking on.