February 18, 2008

How Evangelical Leaders Blew It

Dan Gilgoff does a post-mortem on how the evangelical movement managed to allow John McCain to win the Republican Party nomination over two candidates more amenable to their cause. Gilgoff focuses on their failure to back Romney, and makes it plain that religious bigotry played no small role in their inability to understand which political agenda suited them the best:

As [James] Dobson warmed to Romney — the two had a getting-to-know-you session at Focus' Colorado Springs headquarters last year — he could have opened a dialogue with his millions of radio listeners about why evangelicals should feel comfortable voting for a Mormon, even if they rejected his theology.

Instead, he took public swipes at Republican candidates Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and John McCain, leaving his evangelical fans to deduce his support for Romney and Huckabee by process of elimination.

An online voter guide issued by Focus on the Family Action, Focus' political wing, favored Romney over the other candidates, but it attempted to gloss over the "Mormon issue." "(Romney) has acknowledged that Mormonism is not a Christian faith, and I appreciate his acknowledging that," a Focus rep claimed in a video featured in the guide. When a Romney spokesman denied that the candidate had said as much, evangelicals were left with more questions about whether they could support a Mormon.

This is commonly known as being hoisted by one's own petard. The problem the Religious Right had in this primary was the hang-up over religion, which their movement had avoided for most of its period of influence. In the end, their leaders couldn't see past religion to policy, and that left Romney twisting in the wind.

The evangelical leadership didn't make that mistake with Ronald Reagan or George H. W. Bush. Neither man expressed any personal enthusiasm as evangelicals; Reagan had been divorced once on top of that. Yet the evangelicals supported them enthusiastically for their agendas, not for their particular churching.

For some reason, evangelicals seemed primed for petulance this cycle, and Gilgoff speculates that post-W malaise could have been part of the reason. They got used to having an evangelical in the White House and didn't want to consider supporting any other kind of candidate. Dobson and Tony Perkins announced last year that they might form a third party for evangelicals because of their dissatisfaction with the slate of Republican candidates -- even though the first primaries were months out and they could have found Republicans to support around the country.

When they finally engaged with Romney, they liked his agenda and his ability to organize. Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani, but most evangelical leaders lined up behind Romney, but refused to support Romney rather than just attack everyone else. They could not bring themselves to explain why Romney's Mormonism shouldn't matter, and indeed emphasized their analysis of it as a non-Christian religion, something Mormons hotly dispute. They lost sight of the political agenda and instead got tripped by their doctrinal agenda.

Their constituents simply didn't follow them at the polls. Instead, they voted for Mike Huckabee in Iowa and in the South. The voters followed the leadership's obvious desire to see an evangelical in the White House rather than the focus on policy -- and then discovered that evangelicals still represent only a portion of the Republican vote. Huckabee couldn't convince non-evangelicals to turn out in large numbers, and that left the field to John McCain.

Now Dobson wants to compound his error and that of his movement by petulantly sitting out the 2008 election. He's free to do so, of course, but he's losing credibility by the day. We're not electing a Pope or a Minister-in-Chief. James Dobson and the evangelical movement used to understand that, and their failure to remember it makes them an unreliable coalition partner for Republicans.


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