Evangelicals feud; founders move off the public stage
Barack Obama seems to understand the issue, a former speechwriter says.
As they court the evangelicals who have become so crucial to their party, Republican presidential candidates are stepping into the middle of a family fight.
Christian conservative activists are more split than ever over whether to keep the movement's focus on abortion, marriage and sexual chastity -- or scrap that approach as too narrow.
The founders of the religious right, now in the twilight of their leadership, see even the suggestion of expanding the agenda as a dangerous distraction. In public, and sometimes in personal ways, they are trying to beat back the challenge.
"It's an ongoing debate within the house of evangelicals," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington think-tank. "It's about how evangelicals present themselves in the public arena."
In November, some Christian conservatives condemned pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren for inviting Sen. Barack Obama to speak at an AIDS summit at his church. Obama, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, supports abortion rights.
Just this month, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and 24 other top Christian conservatives pressured the National Association of Evangelicals to silence its Washington director, the Rev. Rich Cizik. The reason: Cizik tried to convince evangelicals that global warming is real.
The board of the association not only stood by Cizik, it then moved on to endorse a critique of U.S. policy toward terror detainees called "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror." Evangelicals, who mostly have a conservative world view to match their theology, rarely speak out against the policies of a Republican president -- especially one at war.
It's unclear who will win the evangelical power struggle, but Michael J. Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush, says candidates in the 2008 race must consider the divisions when crafting an appeal to evangelicals. According to national exit polling, white evangelicals or born-again Christians were about one-quarter of the electorate in 2004. Nearly 80 percent voted for Bush.
"I think there is a little bit of an element of revolt against the tone of some political engagement of the religious right in the past, which seemed quite harsh," says Gerson, who supports taking on a broader set of issues.
"I think conservative candidates for president are going to have to have a strong international agenda of compassion, whether it's AIDS or malaria or girls' education or other issues, in order to appeal to a significant portion of evangelical opinion."
The one leading presidential contender who appears to comprehend this, Gerson says, is Obama. The Democratic senator's appearance at Warren's AIDS conference demonstrates that.
Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the older generation and its tighter focus just yet.
Still have influence
Even though the Moral Majority is gone and the Christian Coalition is floundering, the Revs. Jerry Falwell, 73, and Pat Robertson, 76, who formed the groups, still have clout.
Falwell's Liberty University is thriving, educating thousands of conservative Christians. Robertson still has his TV ministry. And the American Center for Law & amp; Justice, which Robertson founded to advocate for religious freedom, is popular in conservative circles.
Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson, 71, only recently started a political advocacy group, but has quickly become one of the most influential evangelicals in that area.
GOP candidates, many lacking strong evangelical backgrounds, have been flocking to the men.
Arizona Sen. John McCain gave last year's commencement address at Liberty University. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are scheduled to soon speak at Robertson's Regent University.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich just went on Dobson's radio program to confess and seek forgiveness for an extramarital affair as Gingrich pursued President Clinton's impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gingrich is considering a presidential run and will be Liberty's commencement speaker in May.
'Symbols in their own right'
"These figures are moving off the stage, but they're by no means inconsequential. They're symbols in their own right," said John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & amp; Public Life. "They still have good reputations, particularly with evangelicals who are politically active. There are candidates who want to be seen with these people."
Still, none of the men can be kingmaker -- delivering the evangelical vote and the GOP nomination to a favored candidate. The organizational muscle of the movement -- once controlled by national groups linked to Falwell, Robertson and a few others -- now lies with local pastors, who were key to Bush's 2004 re-election win. A large number of Christian conservatives have become GOP insiders; white evangelicals form more than one-third of the party's base.
Divisions among evangelicals will matter less after a nominee emerges.
Recent history has shown that conservative Christians generally back the Republican in the general election. Many feel they have no alternative.
At least until then, presidential candidates have a complicated road ahead.
"It's an extraordinarily positive step and development for Christian conservatives," said Martin, a Rice University sociologist. "It's a sign not of weakness but of maturity."