STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- It's time for the pancake breakfast in the basement meeting hall of St. Peter's Catholic Church in this faded but proud industrial city on the Ohio River. It's Sunday morning before the 11 o'clock mass, and as swarms of kids dig into their syrupy meals, the parents talk politics and religion.
"This country is in trouble and has to get back to the Christian values it was founded on," says Tracy McManamon, an insurance salesman. "We can't be afraid to talk about it. We have to speak up."
Later, upstairs in the sanctuary, Father Ray Ryland echoes that sentiment. In his "prayer of the faithful," he hopes that elected officials will take a "pro-life" position on the issues of the day.
Rick Santorum plans to spend Super Tuesday evening in Steubenville High School, across the street from St. Peter's. The parishioners in the church on Sunday were uniform in their support, even if they acknowledged that he might never be president. "At least he's willing to say out loud what we all believe," said McManamon.
If Santorum hopes to stop Mitt Romney's fitful but effective slog to the GOP nomination, the former Pennsylvania senator will need a massive turnout from church basements and sanctuaries such as these. But whether he wins or loses is almost beside the point. Santorum's unexpected and, in some ways, astonishing rise from semi-obscurity is symbolic of something far more important in politics.
Whatever happens on Super Tuesday, the Republican primary season already has made history. The contest has confirmed the establishment of America's first overtly religious major political party.
The signs are numerous, but it's still easy to miss the big picture: that the GOP now is best understood as the American Faith Party (AFP) and its members as conservative Judeo-Christian-Mormon Republicans. The basement of St. Peter's is just one clubhouse.
"There has never been anything like it in our history," said Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. "'God's Own Party' now really is just that."
The new GOP does not seem to be sitting well with the American people as a whole, or even with many traditional Republicans. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine is only the latest non-AFP-type Republican to decide to leave politics and/or the party. In the new ruling class, "revival tent" proponents are driving out the old "big tent" advocates. And a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 40 percent of American adults think less of the party after watching its transformation this electoral season.
The American Faith Party is a doctrinally schizophrenic coalition bound by faith in the power of biblical values to create a better country; by fear of federal power, especially that of the federal courts and President Barack Obama and his administration; and by fear of rising Islamic political power around the world.
The AFP unites Catholic traditionalists who especially revere the papal hierarchy; evangelical, fundamentalist and charismatic Protestants; some strands of Judaism, including those ultra-orthodox on social issues and Jews for whom an Israel with biblical borders and a capital in Jerusalem is a spiritual imperative, not just a matter of diplomatic balance in the Middle East; and Mormons, who ironically aren't regarded as Christians by most other members of the coalition. Romney, a devout Mormon, is their man.
The four still-standing Republican presidential candidates are all AFP members in good standing on most of the party's key agenda items. The GOP platform is sure to feature all of them, including opposition to abortion and gay marriage; measures to counter what Republicans regard as attacks on religious liberty; expressions of fear about the extent of federal power, especially from the courts, on social and medical issues; libertarian economic policies that limit regulation and taxes (for religious conservatives and economic libertarians share a common enemy: government); denunciations of Islamic political power; and support for Israel. (Ron Paul is a dissenter on the last two points.)
All the candidates, including Paul, adhere to the AFP's central operational tenet: that professing your own faith -- once verboten in American politics -- is a necessary precondition to being taken seriously.
In the American Faith Party, in other words, every day begins with a prayer breakfast, a public ritual that used to occur only once a year.
Religious parties are familiar phenomena in most of the world. Europe has Christian Democrats in every country. Egypt has the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Bill of Rights ban on the establishment of religion and religious tests pushed American parties away from such overt identification. Historians say that never before has the U.S. had a party whose central identity and avowed cause was the profession of religious faith in politics.
A generation in the making and like the original Republican Party it has supplanted, the AFP is the product of a fundamental moral conflict -- in this case, over the relative roles of church and state, and over the role of religion in guiding public policy.
Ronald Reagan began the process a generation ago, reaching out to evangelical, Bible Belt Protestants, who had shied away from politics ever since the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee in the 1920s. In Reagan's case, the motivating force was the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision supporting a woman's right to an abortion, which led Catholics to ally themselves with conservative Protestants.
To be sure, there have been other avowedly religious presidential candidates in recent years, among them Pat Robertson, a televangelist, in 1988 and Mike Huckabee, a preacher in his spare time, in 2008.
But never before has the entire party essentially been singing from the hymnal. Candidates in 2012 who did not do so, such as Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain, went nowhere; implausible entrants such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry went further than they would have in an earlier era of the Republican Party.
As seen from strongholds such as Steubenville, the new party is built in equal measure on hope and fear. Its leaders and adherents deny their goal is theocracy and say they only want religious freedoms protected and an acknowledgement that biblical faith and morals were central to the founders' vision of America -- and must be central again if America is to survive at all.
There's enough resonance to their concern about the secularization of American culture to give their grievances credibility and even populist nobility. "When they frame their cause in terms of religious liberty, that's something that Americans agree with," said Wilentz. "That approach creates an inspiring sense of mission."
According to historians, the closest entity akin to the new AFP was the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party of the early 19th century. "They were all Protestants, but they were entirely about what they were against, not what they were for," said author and historian Michael Beschloss. The Prohibition and civil rights movements were church-based, but their objectives weren't per se religious, said Wilentz.
To the parishioners of St. Peter's in Steubenville, this history is beside the point. Their point is that government alone can and will never nourish the proper regard for the sanctity of life, the dignity of humanity and the role of faith in creating moral character that Americans need to govern themselves in a democracy.
"We can't ever think that a fetus is somehow undesirable or even disposable," said Justine Schmiesing, a mother of seven who noted that she does not "contracept." "We don't want government to act in ways that ignore life, and that is why we are speaking up."