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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

Christian political agenda: broadening or splintering?


As their presidential nomination process wrapped up in early March, Republicans appeared to be a fiancée with some doubts. Unlike the Democrats, GOPers made their commitment: For better or worse, it’s going to be Sen. John McCain. But they keep nervously playing with the engagement ring. Was he really the one? Christian conservatives are a key element of that doubt. When the race started it seemed they had several suitors who might fulfill their wishes -- a conservative Catholic convert from Kansas (Sen. Sam Brownback), a Mormon former governor from Massachusetts (Mitt Romney) and a former Southern Baptist preacher turned Arkansas governor (Mike Huckabee).

They said the right things to woo the coalition. Each candidate displayed his faith proudly. Each opposed abortion and gay marriage. Each promised to appoint conservative judges, continuing the trend started during the Bush administration.

And all three lost to a man who once called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance.” (Conservatives remember that McCain also mentioned Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton in that sentence, which only made the insult worse.)

What gives? Just four years ago conservative evangelicals and Catholics were credited with giving Bush his “political capital.” Now they seemed broke. Did the coalition splinter? Did it go dormant or simply dissolve? Is something new afoot?

The results may mean nothing, said John Green, senior research fellow for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, other than that a coalition that bonds tightly on issues didn’t hold together on which candidate best represented their perspective.

“I think there are more traditional Catholics that are very much willing to work with evangelicals on issues such as stem-cell research or opposition to abortion,” said Green. “But in the primaries you’re not seeing issue-based politics as much as you are seeing candidate-based politics. In the end they split up their votes among several candidates.”

So none of them won. But the coalition may well have provided a preview of what could work in the future for faith-based conservatives. They won’t back down from the social issues that brought them together to begin with. But they may be open to broader perspectives when looking for candidates in the future.

A new coalition

Jim Wallis, editor in chief of Sojourners magazine, said a movement is already underway. As the title of his new book asserts, he thinks people of faith in America are experiencing a Great Awakening.

“There’s a new evangelical-Catholic alliance,” said Wallis, a liberal evangelical. “There’s real convergence among all of us on the inequality, injustice, poverty issues. Poverty, both locally and globally, climate change and conflict, especially in Iraq -- those issues are very key. It’s a new generation of evangelicals and Catholics. They want their voices to be heard and they have a much broader and deeper agenda.”

Huckabee’s rise and ultimate demise, Wallis contended in a entry, is both the proof and antithesis of this awakening. On the one hand, his platform engaged a wide range of topics only now being linked to Christian conservatism.

“While Huckabee is certainly a social conservative,” Wallis wrote in his blog, “he refused to toe the line on a number of issues. And that is why I say the monologue of the religious right has ended and the evangelical agenda has broadened.”

Huckabee shows a nuanced understanding of immigration, for instance. He advocated for a tighter border on the one hand, but a path to citizenship and scholarship opportunities for children of immigrants on the other. He is also known for a progressive approach to the problem of poverty in America as well as to disease and malnutrition in developing nations.

Wallis wonders whether Huckabee didn’t get the traction he needed -- and even suffered attacks for not being conservative enough -- because he walked beyond the typical boundaries of his party.

“Is it because many on the religious right are really more committed to economic conservatism that social conservatism?” Wallis wrote. “Have religious conservatives gotten so used to their access to power that they are afraid to risk standing for principle over pragmatism?”

Wallis said the new bloc of faith-based voters isn’t beholden to one party.

“Most of these young Christians would care more about the 30,000 children who died today of poverty or disease than they would about a gay marriage amendment in Ohio,” Wallis told NCR. “Whoever speaks a moral language of politics and addresses the issues they care about has a real chance of getting their attention.”

A Catholic candidate

Don’t count Thomas O’Toole, of Elmhurst, Ill., among those signing up for Wallis’ coalition. He is a Catholic committed to Vatican teaching, places “life issues” such as abortion and stem-cell research at the top of his agenda, and doesn’t see himself voting for Democrats anytime soon.

-- CNS/Reuters

Mike Huckabee

Huckabee appealed to O’Toole for different reasons than Wallis cited.

“He really was the most consistent on the life issues, I mean by far,” said O’Toole, who started a Web site for Catholic supporters of Huckabee. “If you think about it, it’s not just what their platform is, but how they articulate it. Huckabee is very articulate on why he’s pro-life. Not just a religious point of view, but from a constitutional point of view. It’s not just a platform, it’s something he believes.”

Pew’s Green said there was a trend toward Huckabee among conservative Catholics following the elections closely.

“I interviewed a lot of Catholic activists and many were very excited about Huckabee,” Green said. “But for some reason Huckabee was never able to expand his support to include a lot of Catholics. But it could simply be because he was underfunded.”

It’s a shame, O’Toole said. Because Huckabee has what it takes to place Christian conservatism decisively in the mainstream. He was a natural on shows like Jay Leno and “Saturday Night Live.”

“A sense of humor never hurts,” O’Toole said. “I mean a guy like Alan Keyes just drives people into the ground. That turns me off, even if I agree with a lot of what he has to say. Huckabee can say it in a way the draws people in. That’s important.”

Still, Green said Huckabee is in good position to be a force in the Republican Party for years to come. And O’Toole is ready to work for him again.

“If somehow Catholics could get behind him,” O’Toole said, “he may not have to be the little guy next time.”

Romney: What happened?

-- CNS/Reuters

Mitt Romney

If Huckabee’s out-of-nowhere candidacy told one narrative, Romney’s well-heeled candidacy told a different tale. Last fall, Romney’s number one obstacle appeared to be a socially liberal Republican from New York City. Anyone remember Rudy Giuliani?

Romney had money, he was gaining recognition, and all he had to do was garner Bush’s religious right bloc. And that set up a second obstacle: a Mormon winning over evangelicals and Catholics.

“It’s difficult for a lot of people [to get around religious differences],” Green said. “One way they get around it is they reassure themselves the candidate in question is not going to emphasize their religious doctrines [as much] as they are going to emphasize their political goals.”

For O’Toole, it really didn’t have much to do with Mormonism.

“He pretty much changed his pro-life position, as much as I can tell, when he decided to run for president,” O’Toole said. “It’s hard to believe he’s committed to that stand.”

Perhaps The Economist put it best: “Republicans like their leaders to be steadfast.”

Does McCain’s nomination mean Republicans will start talking about small government and strong military more than gay marriage and stems cells? Could Wallis be right -- that a new religious coalition, centrist but principled, will hold the parties to a broader sense of moral duty in the world? Could Romney or Huckabee be primed for another run in four or eight years?

As with a marriage, only time will tell. Green reminds us that Bush’s coalition did not coalesce until after his nomination in 2000. There may be a new kind of bloc where faith and politics blend, “but we won’t know what it is until after the elections,” Green said.

Michael Humphrey is a Kansas City, Mo., freelance writer.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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