What Evangelical Problem?

Just a few months ago, word on the street was that Mitt Romney had an "evangelical problem." His quest for the Republican presidential nomination was dead on arrival, the thinking went, because the Christian right -- essential to putting him in the White House -- wouldn't endorse a Mormon. Then, as he began to emerge as a serious contender for the hearts and minds of the true believers, Romney got hammered for his flip-flop on abortion and metamorphosis from a left-of-Ted Kennedy gay-rights advocate to the only governor in American history to compare his own state unfavorably to Sodom.

But none of this has stopped some of the Christian right's most influential power brokers from offering endorsements and strategic help, signaling that Romney is doing more than pandering on abortion and gay marriage. He's on board to change the courts and their interpretation of the Constitution.

Jay Sekulow, the head of Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ALCJ) and one of the most prominent evangelical figures in the country, has placed his seal of approval on Romney and signed on to advise his campaign. Gary Marx, a former Bush campaign liaison to the evangelical community, is Romney's Conservative Coalitions Director. Marx also heads up the Judicial Confirmation Network, which last year ran an ad ominously portraying "left-wing extremists" opposing the Alito Supreme Court nomination as supporting legal positions that were antithetical to "the real America."

And the blog Evangelicals for Mitt was co-founded by David French, a Harvard-educated lawyer who works for Sekulow's frequent ally, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which is James Dobson's effort to undo the legal accomplishments of the American Civil Liberties Union. French has contributed articles to David Horowitz's Front Page magazine about the supposed suppression of Christian speech on college campuses, and last year he became head of ADF's new Center for Academic Freedom, which seeks to end “the unconstitutional persecution of Christian students on campus.” Its natural enemies, according to its website, are the Lambda Legal Defense Fund and the Human Rights Campaign. According to the ADF, it is gay people and political correctness on college campuses that silence Christians from condemning homosexuality as commanded by the Bible.

Unlike his benefactor Robertson, whose propensity for loony outbursts has obliterated his status as a spokesperson for the movement, Sekulow boasts street cred both with both grassroots constituents and Beltway powerbrokers. His fingerprints are not just on the litigation ACLJ brings, but on judicial nominations and legislation as well. (His early endorsement of Harriet Miers notwithstanding, Sekulow remains one of the most influential figures in the conservative court-stacking movement.) Through his daily radio show, Sekulow performs a critical political organizing role, harnessing his inside-baseball expertise to rally the troops behind the issue du jour, most recently a campaign against the Senate astroturf lobbying reform measure, which Sekulow demonized as an effort to silence the free speech rights of churches. Like most hysteria emerging from the brain trusts of Christian right political advocacy, the sales pitch was the battle-worn scare tactic that God-fearing activists must defend America from destruction by anti-Christian secularists.

Sekulow remains untarnished by revelations over a year ago that he and his family used funds from a network of nonprofits to enrich themselves, and that he used an ALCJ-owned plane to ferry Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to a speaking engagement at Robertson's Regent University. He continues the conservatives' long and patient march to turn back the jurisprudential clock into the dark ages, not just on the bread-and-butter issues like abortion and gay marriage, but on the war on terror as well. If there's one Bush legacy that makes the Christian right happy -- and there may be only one, as movement leaders are loudly dissatisfied with what they perceive to be his inaction in "defending marriage" -- it's how Bush has successfully installed ultra-conservative judges on the federal bench, particularly the Supreme Court. Sekulow and Marx have played key roles in making the federal judiciary a more hostile place for civil rights, reproductive rights, and church-state separation. In other words, they've helped make it more receptive to French's legal arguments: that Christians' free speech rights are impinged by leftist secularists and gay people, and that the Constitution permits state endorsement of Christianity as a national religion.

Every Republican presidential candidate starts tallying votes and comes to the conclusion that he must -- at least during primary season -- be the lapdog of the Christian right. John McCain futilely journeyed to Lynchburg to kiss the ring of Jerry Falwell, a man he once called an "agent of intolerance." Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor from Hope, Arkansas, pines for their affections but has received a decidedly stony reception for suggesting that, for example, Christians should work with gay rights activists to combat AIDS. Sam Brownback, cozy with evangelical constituencies ranging from anti-abortion activists to Christian Zionists, may seem like their natural choice. But French's Evangelicals for Mitt says that Romney "is clearly the best choice for people of faith. He is right on all the issues, and he has proven his positions with actions. He is a gifted and persuasive spokesman for our political and moral values."

Romney is doing more than just base boot-licking with sanctimonious speeches about life, family, and marriage. His alliances demonstrate his endorsement of the most reactionary legal thinking in America. If he gets the GOP nomination, he'll likely publicly soften his positions. But he's already made his views clear, and he'll flip-flop at his own peril.

Sarah Posner is a freelance writer and contributor to The Gadflyer and AlterNet's PEEK blog. She is working on a book about televangelists in politics.

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