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Dan Treul

Dan Treul

Posted: February 4, 2008 10:55 AM

Evangelical Power Vastly Diminished Headed Into Super Tuesday


More than thirty OffTheBus members collaborated on the following story. A full byline is below.

The so-called "evangelical vote," often cited by media analysts as a crucial constituency in securing the Republican nomination, is likely to exercise considerably less influence this cycle, according to a series of interviews with clergy and political analysts conducted by HuffPost's OffTheBus {citizen journalism project.}

Going into this week's Super Tuesday primary contest, no single GOP candidate stands to clinch the nomination based on an evangelical conservative vote, whose strength as a unified bloc has seriously eroded. Heading into Tuesday's 22-state showdown, conservative evangelicals across the country are unimpressed by the GOP field, and many are finding themselves facing difficult choices in evaluating candidates' records on litmus-test issues. Many evangelicals - particularly those between the ages of 18 and 29 - are in a state of flux and expanding their political interests beyond the realm of traditional conservative concerns, such as abortion and gay marriage. In recent years self-identified progressive evangelicals began to organize in opposition to the conservative evangelical movement, but its members differ widely enough on their overall political positions that it can't be considered a voting bloc. The shifting youth demographic is creating some opportunities for Democrats in 2008, but will not be a deciding factor in the coming Super Tuesday contest.

"Evangelical Protestants, ever since they became important actors in the Republican Party, haven't been united on anybody," said Dr. Jim Guth, a professor of Political Science at Furman University. "George Bush was the exception in that he was able to attract the support of most of the evangelical community early on." Such protestant evangelical cohesion is "atypical," said Guth, who has studied issues of religion and politics since the 1970s. Evangelicals, he said, "are still less likely to vote than mainline Protestants and Catholics are. That was what Karl Rove was talking about, because this is a group that's [historically] participated less."

That observation, supported by interviews and research in key Super Tuesday battleground states, directly challenges the assumption that evangelicals will chose the GOP nominee and the president. A recent piece in Newsweek described the evangelical base's role in the last cycle, "In 2004 white evangelicals made up 23 percent of the record 126 million voters, and 78 percent of them supported President Bush, a major factor in the defeat of Senator John F. Kerry." Yet according to Guth, that kind of abnormal support didn't - and probably won't ever - come easy. While the majority of church officials interviewed by Off The Bus denied a sense of "anxiety" amongst their congregations heading into Super Tuesday, there exists an undeniable uneasiness amongst evangelicals grappling with what Guth terms "disappointment" - a sense that "maybe Christian conservatives got a little too close to the Bush administration and the Republican party, a little too politically engaged, and it might be better to drop back a bit."

"It's not like there is some cookie-cutter Christian response," said Pastor J.P. Jones of Crossline Community Church in Mission Viejo, California. Whereas most ministers interviewed expressed reticence in speaking for their congregations, nearly all hinted at deep rifts amongst evangelical voters. There is also evidence that many evangelicals are beginning to look beyond these staple issues.

Pastor Tom Lambelet of Faith Church in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, believes much of the perceived "fragmentation" can be attributed to the "broadening of issues, where I think there used to be a more narrow conservative view. Citing "the war, the environment, the poor..." Lambelet added that despite the conservative quality of his congregation, his younger members are increasingly less so. According to both the research and the interviews, it is in part this growing, more globally conscious generation that is fueling Democrats' recent success in traditionally conservative territory. In the Nevada Democratic Primary, 32 percent of Clinton supporters and 49 percent of Obama supporters indicated that they attend church more than once a week, according to MSNBC exit polls; and the Pew Forum on Religion and Politics notes that "there is some indication that Democrats are doing a little better with evangelicals" thus far. The Pew Forum noted that "this pattern seems to be particularly strong amongst young evangelical voters" - voters under 30.

In order to better gauge these developments, The Huffington Post's OffTheBus enlisted the efforts of more than forty citizen journalists - as interviewers and researchers - to investigate evangelical voting power as it stands in key states on the eve of Super Tuesday. These efforts - drawing upon contact with more than 90 churches, extensive interviews with more than 20 ministers and outside experts, and detailed research on polling data and candidate information - yielded both the expected and the unexpected, but overwhelmingly dispelled the notion of a heavily influential evangelical vote in Super Tuesday's 22 state contests.


***

For many, including Pastor Scott Lovett of the Real Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, "abortion, gay marriage, and the Constitution" seem a pretty comprehensive list of conservative evangelical concerns; and for some, like President Bush, that list helped them get elected. For years, this family of issues has, in some ways, proven to be the electoral crutch of the Republican Party. 59% of white born-again or Republican evangelical primary voters are unwilling to vote for a candidate who doesn't agree with them on issues like abortion and gay marriage, according to an October 2007 poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News. Such conservative, evangelical values continue to exert their influence on American presidential politics.

Yet since the explosion of scandal and the GOP's defeat in the 2007 mid-term elections, the evangelical base hasn't answered any political altar calls in mass. Facing a GOP field marked largely by divergent positions on key evangelical issues, it is unlikely that conservative Christians will mobilize in 2008 as they did in 2000 and 2004.

Of the three nationally viable Republican contenders remaining, former Governor Mike Huckabee is by far the most attractive to evangelicals based on faith, but not on policy. In Iowa Huckabee was able to capitalize on Iowa's large evangelical population and high rate of political involvement, with 6 of 10 Republican voters identifying themselves as either evangelicals or born-again Christians in exit polling. But Huckabee lost much of his momentum heading into New Hampshire with little established campaign organization and a traditionally more skeptical voting population. Since then Huckabee's suffered two more set-backs; in Michigan evangelicals preferred Romney, and in South Carolina Huckabee narrowly lost to McCain. Many conservative Christians - who agree with Huckabee on key social issues - have since expressed concern over the candidate's national viability, a problem George W. Bush never had to contend with.

"In all honesty, I haven't heard anyone say anything about Huckabee," said Pastor Lambelet. "He's had no noticeable presence or impact," he said, underscoring both the candidate's hit-or-miss appeal and his failure to assemble an effective national campaign following his win in Iowa.

Lambelet and his New Mexico congregation aren't the only ones uninterested in the former Baptist minister. Whereas many of the clergy interviewed expressed curiosity at the fact that Huckabee has been, as they see it, marginalized by the mainstream media, their concern - with few exceptions - is limited at best.

"I can't speak for the entire base of evangelicals across the country," said Pastor Jones in California. "But I think his views on the economy, on taxes, on defense, are less conservative than they would appreciate."

Guth agrees. "Huckabee, even though on many issues that appeal to the evangelical community is solid," has "had a much more populist stand on the economic questions. One of the more interesting things in recent years is that the evangelical community on economic issues has become quite conservative. Despite a lot of talk about there being a large, liberal, economic element in the evangelical community, a lot of the evidence doesn't show that's a big element." Questions over Huckabee's populist economics will certainly exert an influence in Super Tuesday states like Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico, where unease over illegal immigration runs high. Nevertheless, Guth anticipates Huckabee scoring well Tuesday among evangelicals in states like Tennessee. He argues that Huckabee is at a disadvantage in most states, however, due to his inability to "broaden his constituency," as well as a general lack of funds and media access.

Of the Republicans, that leaves McCain and Romney, both of whom have made a concerted effort in recent weeks to portray themselves as conservative men of Christian (if not specifically Protestant) values, and both on the record as moderate to liberal on the social issues critical to evangelical voters.

"What has troubled me for a number of years about the GOP at this point is that...we're lacking in a clearly defined ideology," said Reid Ferguson, senior pastor at the Evangelical Church of Fairport in Fairport, New York. "I don't mean this in the sense of being overtly Christian - that's fine and dandy - but in making that a platform issue, that's not a good sell for a lot of evangelicals who have spent some time looking at things...If a guy walks through the door and says, 'Hey, you ought to hire me, just because I'm a Christian,' I would say, 'No. I want to know your work record, I want to know your deal.'"

Both candidates have struggled to come to terms with their records of past compromises on issues such as abortion, gay-marriage and immigration. Romney is often criticized for his support of both abortion rights and gay-marriage while governor of Massachusetts. McCain, too, has gone back and forth on abortion, and has a history of rocky relations with the evangelical community, particularly after conservative Christian leaders backed his opponent, George Bush, in the 2000 primaries.

On McCain, Guth says, "There are a lot of conservatives who won't forget his comments about Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell." Following a bitter loss in the 2000 South Carolina primary against George W. Bush, McCain placed the blame on Falwell and Robertson, labeling both leading evangelists as "agents of intolerance." The pastors interviewed by OffTheBus agreed. Yet "the bigger problem," said Guth, is that "he doesn't have a religious ear, or an evangelical ear." Although a decade-long attendee of his wife's Southern Baptist church in Phoenix, Guth says McCain has struggled to connect with an evangelical base skeptical of his record on social issues.

"I would say definitely McCain is inconsistent with the views of the congregation," said Pastor Timothy A. Hartwick of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Hartwick said that despite McCain's status as Arizona's senior senator, most of the members of his congregation "want someone with firmer stands preventing illegal immigration."

Reinforcing that sentiment is Pastor Scott Lovett of the Real Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who said he thought his congregation would be inclined to support McCain only as a "third" choice, following Huckabee and, principally, Romney. Romney has similarly had to contend with widespread evangelical skepticism - this time surrounding his Mormon faith. During his now famous "Faith in America" address at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library on Dec. 6, 2007, it was Romney who declared, "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom."

Amongst evangelicals in key Super Tuesday states, the reviews of Romney are mixed.

"I've had some communication with people about him being a Mormon and if that matters," said Lambelet in New Mexico. "It is not significant for people. People think that it is not a factor." In Michigan's Jan. 15 primary, that sentiment proved true, with Romney winning the evangelical vote over Huckabee, 34 percent to 29 percent, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. However, Romney's appeal in Michigan was almost certainly influenced by his family ties to the state, where his father, George, served as governor. Romney did, however, score a significant victory amongst fundamentalist evangelicals with the personal endorsement of Bob Jones III.

In seeking to dispel fears of exaggerated Mormon influence in the White House, Romney said: "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions." Whereas that may help to quiet concerns among more secular voters, it's not necessarily what many evangelicals want to hear.

"Jesus didn't put his face in an institution or the political machine," said Pastor Keith Bethel of Passages Christian Fellowship Church in Laveen, Arizona. "He put the power in the gospel and trusted it to the church. If the church is doing its job, we don't need elected officials to create policy."

"We're not wild about either Romney or McCain," said James Baker, ministry president of Navajo Ministries in Farmington, New Mexico. "They don't approach the core values the same way Bush did in 2004."

Even in his respective homes - both the Midwest and New England - Romney's reception amongst evangelicals is lukewarm. At the Oct. 20, 2007 Values Voter Summit, members of the Massachusetts Log Cabin Republicans - a conservative gay advocacy group - distributed letters sent by Romney to their group in 1994 asking for their support based on "the values and vision that we share."

According to Guth, Romney is likely more appealing to conservative Christians "because he's less unappealing than Senator McCain is."


***

Playing off what Guth terms conservative Christians' "disappointment" with the unkept promises of the Bush presidency and dissatisfaction with the Republican field, evangelical interest in the Democratic candidates is on the rise. This year's Democratic contenders are already drawing more interest amongst evangelicals than Gore or Kerry did at this point in 2000 and 2004, with Clinton and Obama both drawing large crowds at churches across the country. Obama has proven particularly adept, says Guth, even taking his message of social action to the tremendously popular Rick Warren at the Second Annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church in November and December of 2006. Further, Obama has taken a slight upper hand amongst evangelicals in large part due conservative Christians' continued unease regarding Clinton's marriage and relationship with former President Bill Clinton.

Still, both Clinton and Obama face steep challenges from an evangelical base that is historically less than friendly to women and minorities in the ballot box. Both face vehement opposition from the radical fringe, wherein the Clinton name and the maliciously untrue rumor that Obama is Muslim don't play well. Pastor Lovett of the Real Church in Oklahoma told OffTheBus that "We feel that Clinton is not what she presents herself to be and we feel the same about Obama."

"With Obama," he said, "we think that he will end up with a 'Muslim twist.'"

"I think the feeling is that Barack Obama represents a charismatic type of leadership with a focus on change," said Pastor Jones of California, "but there is concern both about the content of his positions - that he's very liberal - and...about his inexperience. Hillary, she certainly has a lot of experience, but there's not a real positive image because of the relationship with her husband and probably the view of her husband is probably not seen as super favorable by a large number of people." Obama also enjoys a slight advantage over Clinton in that the specter of the former first lady's failed healthcare initiative is still omnipresent in conservative circles.

Pastor Dan Paul of the Christian Church of Pacific Grove has witnessed similar reactions at his church in Pacific Grove, California. Paul, a cousin of presidential candidate Ron Paul, says that "We have got people on both sides of the political spectrum," and "I guess the most vocal people are all talking about Barack Obama, and they're excited about him, and he's a U.C.C. guy. That's one of our partner denominations," he said. "If that's what influences voters - I really don't think it does."

"Obama has done a good job thus far," said Guth. "His effort in some ways has been more symbolic than anything else...he's reached out, and opened lines of communication." Several pastors interviewed by OffTheBus reported being contacted by the Obama campaign, and a few sat in on national conference calls with the candidate. In a Jan. 28 article, the Chicago Tribune reported that Democrats had been less eager in their embrace of Latino evangelical leaders than Republicans. The Rev. Samuel Rodriquez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference said that he took the initiative to contact Clinton and Obama. Obama responded, interested in holding a conference call with Latino evangelicals. Clinton did not. If such disappointment manifests itself as it has in interviews such as these, Obama may do well amongst Latino evangelicals in the southwest on Tuesday.

Her campaign still recovering from a major defeat in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton remains in a kind of political limbo with evangelical voters around the country. Even the Rev. Elder Charlotte M. Strayhorne of Casa de Cristo Evangelical Church in California, who contrasted her own kind of "evangelism" with that of the late Jerry Falwell, said that, in her mind, the election will most likely come down to "the lesser of three evils," whom she described as "Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain." Clinton faces a tough fight for evangelical votes amongst an electorate still ill at ease over her marriage to and relationship with former President Bill Clinton. When asked to comment on the Democratic candidates and their success in forging relationships with evangelical leaders, Guth spoke at length about Barack Obama. He did not mention Hillary Clinton.


***

After contacting nearly a hundred churches and interviewing more than 20 pastors and evangelical leaders, OffTheBus has uncovered a "house divided", although that "house" was never really united in the first place.

"I'm just talking here," said Pastor J.P. Jones of Crossline Community Church in Okalahoma, "but I think the media perpetuates the perception that the evangelical movement is totally homogeneous with respect to politics, and exit polls indicate that people of faith vote both Democratic and Republican."

As voters head to the polls in 22 states tomorrow, conservative Christianity in America is in a state of flux, further pressured by what evangelicals widely view as a slate of less-than-desirable candidates. Huckabee, long the favorite among evangelicals, competes now against strong concerns that he's not nationally viable. Interest in Democratic candidates is higher than usual, but none of Democratic candidates can expect the broad backing equivalent to the support George Bush received. Lacking a candidate who mirrors their voting issues, this year returns evangelicals to the predicament they faced before George Bush - a slate of candidates, some of whom individually speak to specific issues, but none who call the base into play.

Edited by Marc Cooper and Amanda Michel. Interviews and research conducted by Mariangela Anzalone, Matthew Bigelow, Jennifer Bogut, Al Cannistraro, Eliot Caroom, Steve Dayton, Kim Farris, Mike Germain, Melissa Hapke, Nannette Isler, Sandy Kaczmarski, Mark Kusick, JoAnne Lindsley, Trudi Loh, Kathryn Lurie, Robert Maize, Elaine Meyer, Amanda Michel, Neil Nagraj, Chris Nelson, Erin O'Neil, Rosaleen Ortiz, Amy Perrett, Heidi Pickman, Angie Santiago, Annie Shreffler, Shelly Smith, "Karen T.", John Tomasic, Matthew Townsend, Dan Treul, Theresa Weathers, Ellen White, Yogender, Patrick, Matt, and Rosheen

To find out more about HuffPost's OffTheBus, visit us at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/off-the-bus/