Keeping the Faith
Evangelicals know what they want in a candidate. But the current crop may not have it.
Veteran Christian activist Marlene Elwell is not inclined to make political compromises. She helped engineer Pat Robertson's victory over George H. W. Bush in 1988's Iowa caucuses and led Michigan to constitutionally ban gay marriage in 2004. But after meeting with Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, interviewing California Rep. Duncan Hunter, and studying former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee-all 2008 presidential hopefuls who, like Elwell, are dyed-in-the-wool religious conservatives-she concluded that none could raise the tens of millions of dollars necessary for a competitive campaign. So she looked to the top-tier Republican candidates who were less ideologically pure on abortion and gay marriage.
Of course, that decision had its own challenges. Elwell knew she could rule out supporting ex-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a social liberal. She sat down with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a onetime supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who now calls himself a staunch social conservative, but couldn't get past his "sketchy and inconsistent" record. So Elwell cast her lot with Arizona Sen. John McCain, who infuriated religious conservatives by supporting embryonic stem cell research and opposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. She reasoned that McCain's many antiabortion votes in the Senate made him enough of a social conservative and that he has a strong shot at actually winning. Elwell signed on, not just as a supporter but as McCain's faith outreach director. Now her task is to convince fellow Christian right activists that the senator is not the social moderate they think he is. "At first, audiences say, 'Oh, my-McCain isn't pro-life,'" Elwell says. "But after I discuss his record, they're pleasantly surprised. There are converts."
Whether McCain and the other leaders of the GOP presidential pack-Giuliani and Romney-can make enough converts among the Republican Party's base of religious conservatives may determine whether any of them can win the presidential nomination. Because of their political records and personal lives, all three have raised abundant doubts within the Christian right. And what happens next could be crucial. "One possibility is that Christian right activists coalesce around Brownback or Huckabee-if united, they would be formidable," says John Green, a scholar at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "And if they unite against any one candidate's nomination, they could prevent him from winning the nomination." Trying to stave off either possibility, McCain and Romney-and, to a lesser extent, Giuliani-have launched Christian conservative outreach plans. But some powerful Christian right activists are skeptical. And others are determined to stop the front-runners in their tracks.
The Christian right's consternation over Giuliani, McCain, and Romney is a remarkable turnabout from 2004, when the movement was united behind the re-election of George W. Bush. White evangelicals, who made up roughly a quarter of the electorate in 2004 and 2006, accounted for nearly 4 in every 10 Bush votes. "I don't think any of the three are remotely acceptable, and I don't think I'm an outlier," says Michael Farris, a top Christian activist who organized meetings between Bush and evangelical leaders for his first presidential run. "Giuliani holds the opposite view of the Republican platform on social issues, Romney has held both sides of those issues, and McCain picked fights with us the last time he ran for president." An early February meeting of the Council for National Policy, a club of powerful social conservatives whose members include Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Left Behind author Tim LaHaye, was thick with fretting over '08. "I've never seen more disillusionment at this point in the election in 30 years," says a source close to the Council for National Policy, which prohibits members from discussing meetings with the media. "There's a revolt out there, a feeling these top three are being pushed on us by Republican leadership in D.C."