He’s been married three times and is an admitted adulterer, features that would seem to make Newt Gingrich an unlikely standard-bearer for the hyper-moralistic brigades of the Religious Right. But with a little mental gymnastics, all things are possible.
“Maybe the guy in the race that would make the best president is on his third marriage,” Steve Deace, a prominent Religious Right leader in Iowa, recently mused to writer Michelle Goldberg of “The Daily Beast” website. “How do we reconcile that?”
One way is to do what Deace did and compare Gingrich with King David, the Old Testament figure who committed adultery with another man’s wife but later repented.
“I see a lot of parallels between King David and Newt Gingrich, two extraordinary men gifted by God, whose lives include very high highs and very low lows,” Deace added.
The rise of Gingrich, whose campaign was on life support as recently as the summer, has stunned many political analysts. Once again, they may have underestimated the Religious Right.
In an unusually religion-soaked primary season, faith has been front and center for months, as a crowded field of GOP hopefuls seeks to assure conservative Christians that they’re ready to hoist the banner for faith and family, as the Religious Right defines those terms.
The Almighty has frequently been pressed into service. Addressing a crowd of young Republicans in Atlanta Nov. 12, businessman Herman Cain, who has since suspended his campaign, announced that God told him to run for president.
“I had to do a lot of praying for this one, more praying than I have ever done before in my life,” Cain said. “And when I finally realized that it was God saying that this is what I needed to do, I was like Moses: ‘You have got the wrong man, Lord. Are you sure?’… Once I made the decision, I did not look back.”
But there was a problem: Cain was the fourth Republican candidate to claim God’s blessing. The deity also convinced U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to run and gave a green light to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. For good measure, God assured Karen Santorum, wife of former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, that her husband should also be in the race.
God, it is said, works in mysterious ways. Those who claim to serve God – or, in this case, the Religious Right – usually work in more predictable ways. And this campaign season has seen the Religious Right playing its appointed role: purging the Republican Party of moderates and working to keep the candidates as closely aligned with its theocratic vision as possible.
It would be easy to argue that the Religious Right is seeking to dominate the GOP race – and is doing a pretty good job of it. For months, political pundits ensconced in Washington, D.C., insisted that the race was really no race at all. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney would be the nominee, they declared.
Just one problem: Republican voters hadn’t signed off on that deal. As summer blended into fall, poll watchers noted with interest that Romney rarely cracked 25 percent support in any national poll. Furthermore, other candidates were constantly nipping at his heels and sometimes overtaking him.
In late summer, Perry briefly topped Romney in national polls before self-destructing due to a string of debate gaffes. Cain then took the lead, before he tumbled over allegations of sexual harassment and infidelity and announced on Dec. 3 that he was suspending his campaign. By that point, Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, had leaped ahead.
It didn’t take a CNN political analyst to figure out what was going on: Romney’s support just wasn’t that deep, and the candidate hadn’t generated much genuine enthusiasm. Among Religious Right voters especially, the Mormon who served one term as governor of a bluer-than-blue state was looking like a crap shoot. Some Religious Right activists signed onto Romney’s campaign seeing him as the most likely person to depose President Barack Obama, whom they despise. But plenty of others continued to press for a purer candidate.
For their part, most of the GOP contenders worked hard to win Religious Right support. In October, every major hopeful spoke at the Values Voter Summit, an annual confab held by the Family Research Council, the American Family Association and other groups. (See “Bombast, Bigotry and the Bible,” November 2011 Church & State.)
On Nov. 19, the Religious Right significantly upped the ante. Three groups – the Iowa-based Family Leader, the National Organization for Marriage and CitizenLink (the overtly political arm of Focus on the Family) – sponsored a forum on “values” issues at First Federated Church in Des Moines.
For more than two hours, six candidates focused on Religious Right concerns: abortion, same-sex marriage, the role of religion in public life and so on. The moderator, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, also gave each candidate a chance to explain his or her Christian faith and tell personal stories about times when they’ve had to rely on God.
Romney, perhaps having no desire to spend two hours explaining Mormon theology to a crowd of fundamentalist Christians, skipped the event. But the other attendees were eager for the chance to assure Religious Right voters of their solidarity. Highlights included Gingrich’s assertion that no atheist is fit to be president and several candidates’ tearful retellings of medical emergencies they faced.
Aside from the forum, Religious Right forces are active across the country but especially in Iowa, where the movement’s foot soldiers have a headlock on the state Republican Party apparatus. In many other politically critical states, Religious Right groups are moving aggressively to implement “get-out-the-vote” programs to increase turnout by far-right church-goers.
Former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, having failed as a political consultant and a novelist, has gone back to his roots and is now running the Faith & Freedom Coalition. Backed by right-wing fat cats, Reed has vowed to contact 29 million religious conservative and Tea Party voters in 2012. While notorious for exaggerating, Reed’s operation is being lauded as the bridge between Religious Right voters and the anti-government Tea Party brigades.
Some new faces are also on the scene. The Response, a Pentecostal-themed movement that gave a boost to Perry by holding a massive Houston prayer rally shortly before he announced, is striving to go nationwide. The group, which has a distinctly theocratic dominionist character, held a prayer event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, shortly before the Iowa caucuses. Although pitched as a call for national revival, the rally’s close proximity to the nation’s first voting event of 2012 raised eyebrows.
In addition, a group of wealthy venture capitalists in northern California is bankrolling United in Purpose, a group that vows to register five million far-right Christians for the 2012 election. Like Reed, the Silicon Valley-funded group pins its hopes on a sophisticated voter ID program that claims to track people by how they’ve voted in the past and by their magazine subscriptions and even the purchases they’ve made online.
United in Purpose has been flogging a video called “One Nation Under God,” which it is urging supporters to show at local events. The video features “Christian nation” advocate David Barton, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson and anti-abortion activist Lila Rose, but the only candidate it gives air time to is Gingrich.
The group also plans to target conservative pastors.
“They’re the shepherds of the flock,” Bill Dallas, the group’s head, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a great mass media channel.”
Indeed, pastors who lead fundamentalist flocks are under quite a bit of scrutiny this election season. Outfits like the Family Research Council and the Faith & Freedom Coalition will be targeting pastors for political action, urging them to exhort congregants on their Christian duty to vote. Pastors will also be asked to distribute biased “voter guides” produced by groups like the Faith & Freedom Coalition that purport to objectively compare candidates’ views but in reality always portray the GOP office-seeker favorably.
Some organizations are going beyond that. For several years now, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal group founded by TV and radio preachers, has been prodding pastors to openly defy federal law by endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. Every fall, the ADF sponsors “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a day during which pastors are urged to intervene in elections.
The ADF, a $35-million-a-year operation based in Scottsdale, Ariz., claims that more than 500 pastors took part in the project in 2011, and the group is aiming for even more in 2012, when “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” will take place on Oct. 7.
What does all of this Religious Right involvement mean for American politics? Although many Americans may not realize it, the theocratic right has had a profound effect on the political system and has helped reshape the American political landscape.
More than 30 years ago, when the modern version of the Religious Right was launched, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other leaders talked openly about taking over the Republican Party. They soon began doing it. During the heyday of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, political analysts used to track the growth of the Religious Right in the states, noting that its shock troops held a controlling interest in many state GOP branches.
Now firmly entrenched in the party apparatus, Religious Right operatives have become a force that cannot be ignored. Republican hopefuls on the national stage bypass this movement at their peril. (It’s no coincidence that one GOP presidential candidate who refuses to continually kowtow to the Religious Right, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, is mired in the single digits.)
At the national level, the Religious Right has helped push the GOP much farther to the right, acting as a screen that filters out moderates.
Thanks largely to the Religious Right, liberal Republicans are an all- but-extinct species. Even moderates are becoming scarce in the party. While this wasn’t all the Religious Right’s doing, the movement certainly played a key role through its constant promotion of “culture war” issues.
This year, Religious Right groups had hoped to coalesce early behind a single candidate and propel him or her to the nomination. For a number of reasons, it didn’t work out. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a favorite of the Religious Right, decided to sit out the race. Some candidates, notably Bachmann and Santorum, are aggressively wooing the Religious Right by putting culture war issues at the crux of their campaign but are perceived as unlikely to prevail over Obama.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) actually has a fairly strong record in support of Religious Right issues but his libertarian focus on shrinking the size of the federal government and anti-war stance hurt him with fundamentalists. Perry looked formidable for a few weeks but was damaged by his own missteps and has yet to recover.
That left Romney by default – until Gingrich began to rise. But the former speaker has yet to seal the deal, and some in the Religious Right remain skeptical.
In late November, Gingrich got some unsolicited advice from Richard Land, a lobbyist with the Southern Baptist Convention. Land warned Gingrich, a convert to Roman Catholicism, that evangelical women are concerned over his matrimonial track record.
“You need to make it as clear as you possibly can that you deeply regret your past actions and that you do understand the anguish and suffering they caused others including your former spouses,” wrote Land in an open letter to Gingrich. “Make it as clear as you can that you have apologized for the hurt your actions caused and that you have learned from your past misdeeds.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, also believes Gingrich has some work to do. Gingrich has been on a tear attacking “secular socialism” for months and blasting courts for upholding church-state separation – he has even proposed impeaching certain federal judges – but Perkins told Fox News that the former speaker needs to stress social issues even more so religious conservatives will realize he’s sincere.
Ironically, the internal divisions among the Religious Right may do exactly what they don’t want: provide a boost to Obama. In the lead-up to the 2008 election, followers of the Religious Right splintered over the flock of GOP candidates. U.S. Sen. John McCain captured the nomination but failed to generate significant enthusiasm among the far right. Obama’s team, meanwhile, did aggressive outreach to religious groups and even managed to peel off some evangelical support.
Obama is employing the same strategy again. In October, Obama met with top leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals at the White House. He has also met with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, a key constituency whose membership includes a lot of swing voters.
In late November, Democratic leaders held a press conference in Washington, during which they vowed to aggressively reach out to religious groups and voters.
The Daily Caller, a conservative website, reported that U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who heads up religious outreach for the party, said, “As we organize going forward to next year there will be significant efforts on our part to reconnect the fundamentals of our policies to the teachings that we all learned, be it in the Old Testament or the New Testament.”
Clyburn added that in the past, Democrats “were so strong in our doctrine that there ought to be a separation of church and state, that we often took it to an extreme, and I think that’s how we got disconnected [from voters].”
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said he regrets the Religious Right’s influence over the presidential campaign and U.S. political life. The culture war obsessions of the Religious Right, Lynn said, don’t reflect the concerns of most Americans.
“Our nation faces many serious problems, but a lack of religion in our political system isn’t one of them,” remarked Lynn. “In fact, this election has already become deeply entangled with religion, with four candidates now claiming that God told them to run. Enough is enough.”