The End of the Evangelical Era

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. 

Comments

By "evangelical voters," American journalists usually mean WHITE evangelical voters. More research needs to be done about voting trends among evangelicals who are not white, such as African-Americans, Hispanics, and Americans from East Asia and South Asia.

It might very well be that current self-appointed Christian conservative "leaders" are out of touch with their congregations. But we need to know more about those congregations before we can predict voting patterns in 2014 and 2016.

Iowa is not representative of the rest of America. Just because they choose to do caucuses at an absurdly early point in the electoral cycle, and the press has absolutely nothing better to do, that bunch of corn farmers get to start the GOPer primary out so far to the right it sets the pace for everything thereafter. And then there's the New Hampshire primary, which also is a tiny fraction of the nation and is almost as far to the right as Iowa is. Even before there's really any news at all worth covering two of the most conservative places get all the publicity. Why is that? What if ll those EEvangelicals held a bunch of caucuses and no one came? Or if Dixon Notch or whatever it is voted and no one showed up to count all 13 ballots?

Tweaking Twain, 'The reports of her death are greatly exaggerated', of course, I refer to the Church. This article seems to be an echo of the coordinated broadsides from the media elite (and even current GOP old guard), to stave off a true conservative as nominee for the GOP.

Frankly, the continual inane references to skin color (comment above) in this debate are disingenuous and hackneyed. Almost no one in America is ethnically pure, we're all mutts, with sliding scales of brown, big deal. The critical questions in the next election will be the size of government, the debt and the rule of law.

The Church got a handle on these questions long ago. I like Pastor Rafael Cruz.

And if the GOP does NOT nominate a true conservative for 2016, only the Church will remain a relevant entity.

Did you hear the joke about the wealthy Christian who ran for political office, while claiming there are no poor people, no sick people, no one who needs shelter, no one needs protection from those corrupted by power, education is for snobs, and that some Christians aren't really Christians because they go to the wrong church? That's the joke. In fact, the joke could end with the words "wealthy Christian" and would still be perfectly understood by anyone with any sense of history, human nature, and the fundamental teachings that underpin Christianty...

You have no argument from me that Vander Plaats and Steve King are right wing nut jobs, but they don't represent all Iowans by any means. Iowa may have a conservative image, but we are in fact not that far to the right. Our supreme court was one of the first to decide that the state's limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples was unconstitutional (unanimously, I might add); our state legislature is split pretty evenly down the middle between Republicans and Democrats; and since 1955 we've had 5 republican governors and 5 democrats. You can also read about our rich civil rights history here: http://x.co/1hFwG

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