Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Well here's some good news

After my rather grim post the other day, here's a little ray of sunshine for you (who luvs ya, Baby?):

A Crisis of Political Faith for Evangelicals

By Shawn Zeller Mon Sep 17, 9:40 AM ET

GOP hopefuls will get no free passes this time from a religious base angered by tepid progress on its agenda

In almost every presidential election of the past three decades, social conservative and evangelical voters didn’t need anything like their own debates or special summit meetings with the candidates. That’s because their choices were so obvious early on: In 1980 there was Ronald Reagan, who coyly told the members of the evangelical Religious Roundtable that, while he understood its membership was barred from endorsing him, he felt free to endorse them. In the past two elections there was George W. Bush, who describes himself as a born-again Christian and won his second term with the support of four out of five evangelicals.

So far in the 2008 campaign, though, evangelical conservatives have been facing a very different prospect: No obviously viable candidate to rally behind and an increasingly restive mood in their ranks.

So political leaders of the religious right are stepping up efforts to find a consensus choice, starting this week by staging the first-ever Values Voter Presidential Debate for the Republican candidates. The debate, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will be moderated by Joseph Farah, who edits the conservative online news site WorldNetDaily, and the questioners will include such old lions of the movement as Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum.

And next month, the Family Research Council, one of the most influential conservative advocacy groups in Washington, will hold a Values Voters Summit that at least four GOP aspirants — former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado — have pledged to attend. Afterward, the 2,000 or so council members who are expected to attend will be asked to participate in the group’s first straw poll.

But at the moment, the council’s president, Tony Perkins, says it’s shaping up to be a rather dour political season for the evangelical right. “Clearly, there is disappointment” in the movement’s ranks, he said.

With the GOP having controlled the White House and the House for the previous six years — and the Senate for the previous four — social conservatives expected much more progress on their agenda in Washington. Although they are happy that Bush has used his veto power to stop an expansion of federal stem cell research, signed a law banning the procedure opponents call “partial birth” abortion and won confirmation of two solid conservatives to the Supreme Court, the Christian right’s rank and file say they’re frustrated that Washington has not pushed for more-sweeping restrictions on abortion and gay rights.

Meanwhile, the president’s support for granting a path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally has further strained the GOP’s relations with the evangelical base — a voting bloc Perkins estimates as one-third of voters in the GOP primaries, enough to make or break any candidate. And the past year’s trio of Republican A-congressional sexual scandals — centered on Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana and Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho — has only fed the climate of disillusion. “Certainly,” Perkins said, “there is reason to be concerned about the future of the relationship” between social conservatives and the Republican Party.

And that has led Perkins and other religious leaders to push for the closer-than-usual examination of the GOP aspirants. “What I hear and see is that if you were a Republican candidate in the past, you got a pass on close scrutiny on key issues,” Perkins said. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case anymore. They are going to have to verify their credentials in order to gain the support of social conservatives.”

While these leaders hope that a consensus candidate will emerge, they are also openly concerned that evangelicals are now in danger of fragmenting at various points on the political spectrum. That’s because more than the composition of the Republican field has changed; evangelical voters are changing as well. Some, while still traditionally conservative in their beliefs, are weary of what they see as a pattern of disrespectful treatment from GOP candidates: lip service during campaigns followed by a dim interest in their agenda once in power. But other religious voters are embracing causes not traditionally identified with American conservatism, such as global warming, human rights and poverty relief.

‘A New Guard’

This new, more tentative phase of evangelical activism also coincides with something of a leadership vacuum. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the iconic Moral Majority, died in May, and onetime presidential hopeful Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, has lost almost all his political clout. Other figures are vying for a more influential voice on a bigger national stage. Among them are Perkins, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.

But none of these figures is likely to emerge as a singular leader in the mode of Falwell, for the simple reason that the future evangelical movement will probably be less unified than its predecessors. As a result, political strategists may soon have to stop thinking of “the evangelical voter” as a shorthand term for a right-leaning voting bloc. “I’m sensing the emergence of an old guard and a new guard,” said Amy E. Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College, an evangelical school in Illinois.

While the break is not exclusively along generational lines, Black says, many of her students — the school is among the most culturally conservative in the country — are more likely than their elders to question the GOP line on issues such as climate change and human rights. Many have also begun to pull away from their elders’ support for the Iraq War — and to distance themselves from President Bush as a result.

At the same time, a number of prominent evangelical leaders have successfully wedded a more liberal outlook to their religious message. Jim Wallis, the self-styled evangelical progressive who founded and edits Sojourners magazine, is a familiar leader in this leftward faction. Richard Cizik, the Washington director of the National Association of Evangelicals, has launched a high-profile initiative to publicize the importance of global warming and other environmental causes for Christian believers — provoking Perkins and other evangelical leaders to press unsuccessfully for his ouster earlier this year. More-centrist figures, such as the popular baby boomer minister Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” have staked out high-profile “social justice” mission projects. Warren has embarked on an aid initiative to transform the war-ravaged African nation of Rwanda into a “purpose-driven nation” and drew harsh criticism from religious conservatives for inviting Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a leading candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, to speak at an AIDS conference at his Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif.

A Buyer’s Market

Even movement leaders say the upcoming flurry of candidate forums points up how the playing field has changed from the days when Reagan was the only GOP presidential candidate to court Southern Baptists — or when the 2000 campaign of Sen. John McCain of Arizona collapsed after he ran afoul of Christian conservatives.

“In Washington and outside the Beltway, it’s really a buyer’s market,” said Bob Knight, who is scheduled to speak at the council’s summit and who serves as director of the Culture and Media Institute, a socially conservative media watchdog in Washington. “We’re waiting to hear a candidate convey our message. That hasn’t happened yet, and that’s why there’s no clear choice.”

It’s not for lack of trying on the candidates’ part. Leading GOP candidates such as Romney and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee are actively vying for the evangelical vote. Even McCain, badly burned from his apostasy seven years ago, has made pronounced overtures to Christian conservatives. Still, most leading candidates have had to explain away evidence in their records suggesting that they may not, in fact, be true believers: Aside from being a Mormon, Romney was clear in his support of gay equality and abortion rights while running for governor of Massachusetts; Thompson, meanwhile, did legal work in the 1990s for an abortion rights lobbying group and has sent mixed messages regarding his views on amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage.

Meanwhile, the early leader, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, has run openly — if respectfully — out of step on many of the evangelical right’s litmus-test issues. But he is polling well among them, at about 25 percent, according to a September Washington Post/ABC poll — although the same survey showed him losing support to the just-announced Thompson. Movement leaders A-attribute A-Giuliani’s level of support to a desire among religious voters to field the strongest possible GOP candidate, whatever his views, against the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. “There’s much more opposition to Sen. Clinton than there ever was to her husband” among evangelicals, said Land of the Southern Baptists. “Rudy Giuliani has going for him the fact that he continues to be either running ahead of her or even with her.”

Democratic Gains?

Of course, still relatively early in the campaign, some evangelicals may be picking Giuliani out of name recognition alone, or because they approve of his leadership after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and his success in helping reduce crime in New York. Perkins argues that most voters aren’t aware of his support for abortion and gay rights. But Land takes a more pessimistic view: that some in his traditional constituency are ready to set aside their strongly held views on social issues to support the most electable Republican.

Land is acutely aware of the long-term political costs of such a calculation. Giuliani as the nominee could crack the united front that backed Bush in 2004, he said, meaning that Clinton or any other Democratic nominee would then have “a license to go hunting for evangelical votes.”

That may appear to be a lost cause, given that all the Democratic contenders support, for example, abortion rights and expanded civil rights for gays and lesbians. But Black of Wheaton College says that even if evangelicals aren’t going to vote Democratic for president next year, they may still come out to vote for the socially conservative congressional candidates the party has been recruiting for swing seats.

But the bigger setback for the GOP nationally could be a replay of what happened last year, when Republicans did not give social conservatives a strong reason to turn out. “We may be at one of those crossroads where people who feel disaffected with the Republican Party are beginning to take a step back,” Black says.

Bowing Out

One figure who advocates taking several steps back from the GOP is Richard Viguerie, the political direct-mail mogul who was an architect of the religious right’s initial surge into power with the election of Ronald Reagan. “Of all the problems that conservatives have had in the last 10 to 12 years, No. 1 has been that too many of our conservative leaders have gotten too close to the Republican Party,” he said.

In a dramatic departure from his past efforts, Viguerie now argues that social conservatives should bow out of presidential politics — at least until GOP leaders have more to offer them. Scanning the Republican presidential field, he says, “Not one of them was there for us” on the key issues to social conservatives: abortion and gay rights. True conservatives “should just sit on the sidelines” during the next election, he advised.

In lieu of electoral politics, Viguerie says evangelical leaders should set up faith-based groups and other socially conservative organizations, with membership that affiliates with both parties, to press their political causes.

Land and other leaders of the evangelical right urge caution in the face of such breakaway proposals — in part by contending that Bush has not neglected their issues as much as the rank and file laments.

Perkins of late has also touted the credentials of two second-tier GOP contenders, Brownback and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, telling readers of his daily Washington e-mail updates that they are the “most religious” candidates.

And both he and Land are downplaying concerns about the conservative bona fides of Thompson and Romney. Perkins says that although there is legitimate concern about the records of both, each is working hard to win over social conservatives. If Thompson and Romney “can show the potential to stand toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton, you’re going to see Giuliani’s numbers drop,” Land said.

But it’s unlikely that any of the Republicans will re-create the strong bond that united so many evangelicals behind the incumbent president. “George W. Bush was elected as one of us,” says Black.

This story originally appeared in CQ Weekly.

[emphases mine]

After reading this, I felt just like Jon Stewart did the night he reported on Dick Cheney shooting a friend in the face - remember that? Jon reached down behind his desk and retrieved a tray. The tray held a pot of hot water, a cup and saucer, and a tin of International Flavored Coffee. There may have been a crumpet or two on the tray, as well. Yes, folks, moments like these are to be savored. Enjoy.