Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers that Christian conservatives’ political power is in decline:
Today, their nearly three-decade-long ascendance in the Republican Party is over. Their loyalties and priorities are in flux, the organizations that gave them political muscle are in disarray, the high-profile preachers who led them to influence through the 1980s and 1990s are being replaced by a new generation that’s less interested in their agenda and their hold on politics and the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is in doubt.
“Less than four years after declarations that the Religious Right had taken over the Republican Party, these social conservatives seem almost powerless to influence its nomination process,” said W. James Antle III, an editor at the American Spectator magazine who’s written extensively about religious conservatives.
“They have the numbers. They have the capability. What they don’t have is unity or any institutional leverage.”
David D. Kirkpatrick at the New York Times and Michael Scherer at Salon report that “Christian leaders” are considering backing a third-party candidate if Rudy Giuliani is the Republican nominee. Michael Scherer writes,
The meeting of about 50 leaders, including Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who called in by phone, took place at the Grand America Hotel during a gathering of the Council for National Policy, a powerful shadow group of mostly religious conservatives. James Clymer, the chairman of the U.S. Constitution Party, was also present at the meeting, according to a person familiar with the proceedings.
“The conclusion was that if there is a pro-abortion nominee they will consider working with a third party,” said the person, who spoke to Salon on the condition of anonymity. The private meeting was not a part of the official CNP schedule, which is itself a closely held secret. “Dobson came in just for this meeting,” the person said.
The decision confirms the fears of many Republican Party officials, who have worried that a Giuliani nomination would irrevocably split the GOP in advance of the 2008 general election, given Giuliani’s relatively liberal stands on gay unions and abortion, as well as his rocky marital history.
A revolt of Christian conservative leaders could be a significant setback to the Giuliani campaign because white evangelical Protestants make up a major portion of Republican primary voters. But the threat is risky for the credibility of the Christian conservative movement as well. Some of its usual grass-roots supporters could still choose to support even a pro-choice Republican like Mr. Giuliani, either because they dislike the Democratic nominee even more or because they are worried about war, terrorism and other issues.
I’m not holding my breath until Dobson et al. bolt the Republican Party. Right-wing religionists have profited mightily through its relationship with right-wing politics, and as long as fundies can deliver enough votes to swing close elections I suspect the GOP will continue to make nice with the fundies. But the bloom is off the rose.
As a movement, conservative Christians have yet to get fired up about any of the leading Republican presidential candidates. There was a brief wave of enthusiasm for Fred Thompson, but that may be ebbing. One of the nation’s most influential evangelicals, James Dobson, wrote a scathing e-mail about Thompson, obtained by the Associated Press last week, in which he objected to the candidate’s opposition to a constitutional marriage amendment and said Thompson had “no passion, no zeal.” Meanwhile, Mitt Romney suffers among some evangelicals because of bias against his Mormon faith. Front runner Rudy Giuliani leaves conservative Christians particularly cold. “If the Republicans are foolish enough to nominate the pro-choice Giuliani, that will give the Democratic Party license to hunt for evangelical votes,” says [Southern Baptist Richard] Land, who has been contacted by both the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns. “I don’t know how successful they’ll be, but at least they’ll have that license.”
Even if Giuliani is the nominee, I foresee Dobson and other Christianist leaders having a change of heart. At some point they’ll step forward and say they have been assured that Giuliani won’t betray Christian values in the White House. For his part, Rudy will have to engage in prodigious ass kissing to bring Dobson around, but I know he’s got it in him.