The Magazine

Republicans and Evangelicals

Yes, this marriage can be saved.

Sep 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 01 • By MARC AMBINDER
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SPOOKED by the political might of religious conservatives, secular liberals and faithful Demo crats are taking comfort from some recent headlines.

In June, Alabama Republicans laughed at a gubernatorial bid by Ten-Commandments-defending judge Roy Moore. In July, Ralph Reed, the quintessential New Right candidate and the architect of the Christian Coalition, lost his first bid for public office, a primary race for lieutenant governor of Georgia. White House aides now publicly downplay the influence of "values voters" in the 2004 election, and Republicans in the House of Representatives whizzed through much of their "American Values" initiative this summer with a few perfunctory press releases. The New York Times was astounded (and delighted) to report the existence of pastors who depart from Republican orthodoxy. And Democrats are discovering that some evangelicals are concerned about poverty and climate change and don't take their political marching orders from Pat Robertson or James Dobson.

So are evangelical candidates losing their political appeal, or are religious conservatives shifting their allegiance from the GOP? Neither, really.

While it's true that, since at least Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, white evangelical Protestants have comfortably aligned themselves with the conservative movement, their alliance with the Republican party is more recent. As late as 1996, Bill Clinton won the votes of one-third of white evangelicals. In 2000, following Clinton's moral apostasy, Republicans nominated an evangelical. George W. Bush shared the beliefs and language of evangelicals, and his political strategist Karl Rove worked assiduously during Bush's first term to bring them into the fold. In 2004, Bush took 78 percent of the white evangelical vote.

This sorting and resorting of allegiances is largely an artifact of politics and person ality. It's no surprise that as both Bush and the Republican brand become less popular, evan gelicals, like virtually every other component of the conservative coalition, are asserting their independence. A Pew poll found that white evangelical Protestants are less willing to identify themselves with the Republican party than they were in 2004; Hispanic evangelicals are turning away from the party because of the stalemate over immigration.

Mega-evangelicals like Rick War ren, author of the phenomenally successful Purpose Driven Life, and Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, have openly challenged Republican corporate dogma on environmental issues and supply-side tractates on poverty. Their best hope is to change the party from within and, on those issues, build coalitions with Democrats. Warren, a talismanic example of a Religious Right pastor who has softened his approach, has met with Democrats ranging from Nancy Pelosi to John Kerry.

But there is no evidence that evangelicals are joining the Democratic party in droves or that social conservative activism is waning. In fact, upon examination, the developments some Democrats believe augur a great unraveling on the right actually reveal something quite different.

In Alabama, most conservatives supported Judge Moore's crusade to keep a monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state supreme court. But Moore gave them no reason to back his bizarre and easily mockable gubernatorial primary bid. Christian voters weren't fooled and refused to be pigeonholed into voting for the most ostentatiously Christian candidate. Alabama Republicans wanted a governor, not a preacher.

Or take Ralph Reed's loss. It's true that his opponent, Casey Cagle, was first and foremost the candidate of suburban Atlanta's Republican business establishment. But Cagle is a cultural traditionalist. When I asked him this spring whether he worried that Reed would try to run to his right on social issues, Cagle leaned forward with a quizzical look on his face. "How?" he said.

Sure enough, there was little daylight between the two, and Cagle, unlike Reed, had a paper trail to back up his claims of fidelity to faith and family. Reed's reputation rested on his ability to exploit wedge issues to benefit conservative candidates. So when Cagle's campaign focused on Reed's financial relationship with indicted millionaire lobbyist Jack Abramoff, it cast doubt on Reed's legitimacy as a humble, faith-abiding Christian. Reed was beaten in part because voters concluded he was an opportunist.

And in the gubernatorial primary in Florida early this month, Republican attorney general Charlie Crist, no social conservative, soundly defeated Tom Gallagher, a candidate who wore his newfound Christianity on his sleeve.