Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Laurie Goodstein: For a Trusty Voting Bloc, a Faith Shaken

(Courtesy of Larval Subjects)

For a Trusty Voting Bloc, a Faith Shaken
New York Times

AFTER the 2004 elections, religious conservatives were riding high. Newly anointed by pundits as “values voters” — a more flattering label than “religious right” — they claimed credit for propelling George W. Bush to two terms in the White House. Even in wartime, they had managed to fixate the nation on their pet issues: opposition to abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research.

Now with the 2008 race taking shape, religious conservatives say they sense they have taken a tumble. Their issues are no longer at the forefront, and their leaders have failed so far to coalesce around a candidate, as they did around Mr. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

What unites them right now is their dismay — even panic — at the idea of Rudolph W. Giuliani as the Republican nominee, because of his support for abortion rights and gay rights, as well as what they regard as a troubling history of marital infidelity. But what to do about it is where they again diverge, with some religious conservatives last week threatening to bolt to a third party if Mr. Giuliani gets the nomination, and others arguing that this is the sure road to defeat.

Many religious conservatives were proud to claim the mantle that Karl Rove bestowed on them as “the base of the Republican Party.” Now they fear they may have lapsed unwittingly into the same role that African-Americans play in the Democratic Party: a dependable minority constituency that is courted by candidates but never really gets to call the shots.

The candidates are certainly sending signals to that effect. While they’re eager to get as many conservative religious votes as they can, they’re no doubt aware of a shift since 2004 — that perhaps these voters aren’t the bloc they were once taken to be, that they don’t all answer to the same leaders, and that they might even be more pragmatic than in the past, more willing to sacrifice purity for viability in a candidate.

Scholars who study the role of religion in politics now say it is possible that the Bush years were an anomaly and that evangelicals, of whom religious conservatives are only a subset, could find themselves back where they were before — divided among themselves and just one of many interest groups vying for attention.

“It’s not so much that evangelicals are more divided than they were before, it’s that Bush himself was a unique candidate,” said Corwin E. Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College, an evangelical school in Grand Rapids, Mich. “It’s partly going back to previous patterns.”

And that stings. Religious conservatives were alarmed last month when none of the Republican front-runners showed up for the Values Voter Debate Straw Poll in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. More than 40 groups, some of them major organizations known for their capacity to mobilize voters, had put together the event. Questions were directed even at the no-show candidates, and many of those questions were angry.

“Beyond their cowardice, there’s an arrogance on the part of these candidates,” said Janet L. Folger, the president of Faith2Action, who helped organize the debate. “The arrogance is this: ‘We are just taking your votes for granted. You have nowhere else to go.’ ”

Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of Eagle Forum and a leader in the social conservative movement since 1972, said: “If the Republican Party kicks away the religious conservatives, then they’re entitled to be called the stupid party. You have to keep your own friends. A sense of betrayal can become more compelling than other issues.”

The overwhelming winner of the Fort Lauderdale straw poll, as well as a poll taken by a religious conservative group in South Carolina, was Mike Huckabee, a folksy Southern Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas. But Mr. Huckabee has not yet registered in double digits in national polls and lags way behind in fund-raising.

Religious conservative leaders say they are having passionate debates in private over whether to choose a candidate based on viability or purity. Old allies find themselves fractured among the camps of Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul and Mr. Huckabee.

The spectacle has laid bare the enduring myth that evangelicals are a monolith that is “easy to command,” to use the phrase made famous by a Washington Post article in 1993.

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