Possible Republican candidates are praying for victory

April 13, 2011

The religious right is back on the Road to Victory. Early in the 2012 election season, socially conservative members of the GOP are attempting to rally their conservative Christian constituents, tapping into a formidable grassroots mechanism rooted in evangelical communities. The Tea Party, meanwhile,  is making moves to secure the allegiance of the institutions that shape the religious right and its  electoral potency.

At a recent convention in Iowa, four potential Republican candidates—Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.), and Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.)—encouraged a room of pastors to engage their congregations in the electoral process. Targeting the state where the first 2012 primary will be held, this convention was representative of a widespread effort to reenergize the religious right by highlighting threats to conservative Christian values posed by the left. It’s a get-out-the-vote campaign reminiscent of the successful grassroots and lobbying maneuvers executed at the peak of the last religious revival in the 1980s and 1990s.

During this period, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson all used their evangelical influence to spread the religious right’s political ideology. Robertson’s conservative lobbying and grassroots organizing group, the Christian Coalition, used churches as a platform to drum up support for conservative candidates. In the words of Falwell: “Get them saved, get them baptized, and get them registered.”

Leading up to the 1994 midterm elections, the Christian Coalition distributed 40 million copies of their “Family Values Voting Guide” to 100,000 churches nationwide. Engaging the religious right in their pre-existing communities proved incredibly effective and precipitated a slew of Republican victories.

Unlike other civil communities, churches tend to be highly social—where ideas become entrenched by sermons, and congregations subscribe to a relatively homogenous ideology. Several features of church communities make them ideal grassroots mechanisms: they interact with the broader community, congregations are highly dedicated to the institutional ideology, and there is a lot of social capital that comes with working on behalf of a candidate endorsed by the church.

Now, early on the campaign trail to the 2012 elections, far-right Republicans are courting pastors of evangelical churches, promoting the party line and characterizing the liberal left as a threat to the moral fabric of the country. While the right’s rhetoric recalls the televangelist-driven revival, the rise of megachurches preaching personal salvation has morphed the religious right’s landscape, and political operatives have replaced evangelists in the religious sphere.

However, the convention in Iowa sought to draw pastors back into the fold of political involvement. Speakers at the conference exhorted the pastors—and by proxy their followers—to combat moral threats like gay marriage and abortion. There were also calls to follow God’s word by opposing activist judges, high taxes, explicit sex education, and assaults on private property rights. Members of the far-right are seeking to combat the left by applying a dogmatic religious lens to their conservative rhetoric. By now, it’s a familiar amalgam that appeals to a well-exercised grassroots apparatus.

The convention was just one instance in the quiet movement to reenlist a group of incredibly effective mouthpieces for the far-right. As Tea Party ideology takes a more and more prominent position in the broader GOP, the self-described libertarian group has made moves to incorporate the religious right’s priorities into its decidedly secular platform.

Before the 2010 midterm elections, leaders of the Tea Party Patriots met with the Council for National Policy, a fundraising powerhouse whose membership list is composed of prominent figures on the religious right. Although the CNP has expressed qualms about the Tea Party’s lack of religiosity, the conservative group might well be making an effort to rebrand itself to capitalize on the religious right’s grassroots might. During a Faith and Freedom convention, national Tea Party coordinator Mark Meckler assured the CNP that Tea Partiers were concerned about “this idea of separation of church and state. We’re angry about the removal of God from the public square.”

Though the televangelist-driven revival may have faded, the religious right remains an influential and powerful component of the GOP’s base. Engaging this base would mean an even more ominous electoral force for Democrats to contend with in 2012, in which case they might not have a prayer.


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