In Play In Iowa: Ralph Reed Confab Shows Religious Right Is In The Game For 2012

Several 2012 hopefuls know how to dish out the red meat to the salivating hounds of political fundamentalism.

Some political analysts are speculating that the Religious Right is dead and that the Tea Party is movement to watch.

Well, it looks like Religious Right leaders and activists haven’t gotten that memo.

Recent evidence of the non-death of the Religious Right comes from Iowa, where former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed last night held a forum on “moral” issues featuring a line-up of Republican presidential possibilities.

The Des Moines Register reported that 1,500 people and five potential candidates showed up for the confab at Point of Grace Church in Waukee, which was sponsored by Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was there, along with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and Herman Cain, CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. One political site said the event marked the start of the “2012 presidential nominating season.”

Sure, some notables were absent. Where were Sarah Palin and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann? Where were governors Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels? But we have to remember that the election is more than two years off. No one has actually officially declared yet. That Reed – stained by the Abramoff scandal and head of a new group that isn’t even especially prominent yet – could sponsor a forum and draw five hopefuls is an indication that the Religious Right is still a powerful force.

Not surprisingly, the would-be candidates spent their time pushing “culture war” hot buttons: They blasted legal abortion, panned same-sex marriage and demanded more religion in public life. These guys know how to dish out the red meat to the salivating hounds of political fundamentalism.

The resurgence of social issues in Congress (the attacks on Planned Parenthood, the flurry of anti-abortion bills, the assaults on the Muppets and their commie pals at PBS) may make one feel like it’s 1995 all over again. If history is repeating itself, we should remember how energized the Religious Right was at that time. (In 1995, the Christian Coalition drew 4,000 people to Washington for its “Road to Victory” conference. Its annual budget was something like $15 million.)

The Christian Coalition may no longer be a serious force, but the Family Research Council holds the “Values Voter Summit” – an annual event that is essentially the “Road to Victory” under a different name. The FRC’s budget vacillates from $12 million to $15 million.

Meanwhile, the same old cast of characters – or their offspring -- keeps stirring things up. Not only is Reed back in the game, but Jerry Falwell Jr. (son of the late you-know-who) and his sidekick Mat Staver continue to run amok. The Rev. Donald Wildmon has passed the American Family Association off to his son, and the Alliance Defense Fund spearheads megabucks Religious Right courtroom efforts. Pat Robertson gives favored right-wing political figures a national stage on his Christian Broadcasting Network, and his American Center for Law and Justice is a multi-million-dollar international operation.

In addition, any number of smaller theocratic outfits stalk the land, seeking to impose their narrow brand of fundamentalism on all of us.

So is this what the American people really want – an endless culture war? Nope. Polls have repeatedly shown that voters want the focus to be on jobs and the economy, not social issues. Interestingly, Republican voters share this view as well.

Don’t expect that to stop the Religious Right, of course. Leaders of that movement are experts are making their own reality (see “creation science” or the belief that America was founded to be a “Christian nation”) and have convinced themselves that most Americans are burning to see National Public Radio eliminated right now and a federal ban on gay people leaving the house.

These people, as alarming as their views are, turn out for elections, especially primary elections – and that’s why they get wooed at meetings like the recent one in Iowa. It’s also why their candidates often get elected.

The Religious Right’s political strategy may involve some high-tech tools like social networking and tweets, but at the end of the day, it’s anchored in something old school: Identifying your voters, rallying around candidates and getting people to the polls on Election Day.

As long as the movement remains focused on this, it will be force to reckon with in American politics.