A few days ago, I wrote about the possible decline or death of the Tea Party movement, in light of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney’s rise in the polls and the sinking of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and others. While I realize that the Tea Party is probably as much about small government and what it deems as “fiscal responsibility” with public money as it is about social issues, it still represents the strongest bloc of evangelical support within the ranks of the GOP. Thus, the New York Times today appropriately asked the question today: “Have Evangelicals Lost Their Sway?”
In response, David P. Gushee, the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, wrote:
This year, after Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin decided to sit the election out, two organic evangelical candidates emerged: Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. (Herman Cain might qualify as a third.) Both Bachmann and Perry are clearly practicing conservative evangelicals. Perry, at least, had a serious chance to become the Republican nominee. But neither he nor Bachmann proved successful in sealing the deal with their own evangelical constituency, and both failed to extend their reach much beyond that constituency.
The emergence of Newt Gingrich, a thrice-married Catholic convert, and Mitt Romney, a committed Mormon, as leaders of the Republican pack does not symbolize a decline in evangelical influence. It more clearly symbolizes the failure of the two organic evangelical candidates. In the case of Gingrich, it also symbolizes the readiness of many conservative evangelicals to trade off their supposedly cherished family values for a candidate they think can win.
And Lara M. Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, had this to say:
Stalwart support among white evangelical Protestants constitutes the Republican long game. Not only do these voters provide the critical momentum lifts during the nomination contest, but their enthusiastic backing could well be the key to winning the general election.
Republican presidential aspirants have gleaned this lesson over the past decade. That’s why there are three serious candidates – Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum – vying for evangelical support and two imperfect social conservatives – Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich – trying to play the part. Earlier in the race, there were two others – Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain – claiming to represent these voters.
This many candidates in the Republican field suggests that evangelicals possess formidable power, not waning influence. Their only problem is their lack of consensus.
But is that really what’s going on? Does the sheer number of evangelical candidates say something about vitality of that wing of the GOP. Quantity, after all, doesn’t at all mean quality.
The striking element in this primary – Huckabee and Palin certainly got this slow roll going back in 2008 – is the unequivocal anti-intellectualism that candidates like Perry and Bachmann represent (and Cain before he dropped out). Earlier in the primary election season, one of my first thoughts was that the Republican Party had set the bar so low that, again in the wake of Huckabee and Palin, that anyone who said mentioned “God,” “Christianity” or “wholesome American values” enough times had a legitimate chance of gaining clout in the Republican Party. Perry and Bachmann, then, were in my mind, current manifestations of Huckabee and Palin from 2008, with two noted difference: that Perry isn’t an ordained minister and that Huckabee would have actually made a more competent leader. Not that I have a dog in the hunt, but my hope in all this, given the recent successes of Romney and Gingrich, is that GOP’s ideologies are in the process of sliding more toward the center after Palin and the gang helped to nearly tip it over the edge.
That said, I don’t think the evangelical bloc of the GOP is going away any time soon since abortion, gay rights and stem cell research concerns are still very much a part of the public conversation. I would be very surprised, however, if Romney wins the nomination. His is Mormon, after all, so unless some new candidate(s) surface, Gingrich will most likely win by default as what I have been calling the “establishment” candidate.