Loyal to the End: Evangelicals Stay the Course by Naomi Schaefer Riley of The Wall Street Journal

November 7, 2008 at 5:00 am Leave a comment

So much for the “new evangelicals.” For the past two years, hundreds of articles have appeared in
newspapers across America making the claim that the old religious right
was moving left and that Barack Obama, with his religiously infused
rhetoric and various “outreach efforts,” was leading the charge.


A year ago, David Kirkpatrick predicted the “evangelical crackup” on
the cover of the New York Times Magazine. “Jesus Rode a Donkey: Why
Republicans Don’t Have the Corner on Christ,” “Thy Kingdom Come: How
the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America” and
“Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right”
are just three of the dozens of books released since 2004 that
suggested that evangelicals were rethinking their loyalty to the
Republican Party and conservatism in general. The new evangelicals,
just in case anyone missed the storyline, were not so backward as to
vote on issues like abortion and gay marriage. They were enlightened
about the environment and favored government aid to the poor.

Well, whoever these new evangelicals were, they didn’t show up at the polls on Tuesday.

John McCain won 74% of white born-again Protestants’ votes. And
while this was four percentage points lower than George Bush’s share in
2004, President Bush’s re-election was “the highpoint” for evangelical
support of Republicans at least since 1980, according to John Green, a
pollster at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It’s become
something of a cliché that Mr. Bush has a “special relationship” with
his fellow evangelicals — but it’s true. And it’s a little unrealistic
to expect that Sen. McCain would enjoy the same relationship with them,
given that he is not one of their own. But he did just as well as, if
not better than, every other GOP candidate in the past 30 years. The
large victory that Mr. Obama scored with most of the electorate makes
it remarkable that his gains with white evangelicals were so small.

It will probably be several more days before the exit polls on voter
“priorities” are released. There can be little doubt that the economy
was foremost in the minds of most Americans. But Richard Land of the
Southern Baptist Convention is convinced that evangelicals still went
to the polls with the abortion issue high on their agenda. Young
evangelicals may be more interested in environmentalism, but, he notes,
“they would never exchange pro-life views for pro-Earth views.” And
Pew’s Mr. Green says that evangelical support for Mr. McCain rose after
three events: his performance at the Saddleback civil forum, where he
said that life begins at conception; his decision to leave the party
platform on abortion alone; and his choice of pro-life Sarah Palin as
his running mate.

In the GOP primaries, it will be remembered, Mr. McCain was not the
first pick of evangelicals. Religious leaders like James Dobson
expressed doubts about his candidacy. And the evangelical segment of
the Republican coalition came under fire from many on the right for
overemphasizing the social issues, particularly when Rudy Giuliani’s
name was on everyone’s lips. But in the end, evangelicals were among
the most loyal supporters of the Republican candidate. In fact, they
made up a higher percentage of the electorate this year than in 2004
(23% vs. 20%).

As Republicans lick their wounds over the next few months, some will
ask whether the GOP coalition of small-government proponents,
foreign-policy hawks and religious conservatives can be preserved.
Members of the first two groups may suggest that the social issues are
simply too divisive, that the party should focus on the free market at
home or strength abroad. Leave aside for a minute that most
evangelicals support those ideas as well. Tuesday provides plenty of
reasons to believe that the culture war is not over and to suggest that
social issues, instead of being blamed for the Republican loss, should
be the key to the party’s expansion.

Looking at the presidential and congressional results, one might
conclude that the country is no longer “center-right.” But when it
comes to social issues, Americans have stayed center-right — and
social conservatism still has broad appeal. Bans on same-sex marriage
succeeded in three states that are hardly considered bastions of
cultural conservatism: California, Arizona and Florida. It is true that
the initiatives that would have severely restricted abortion in South
Dakota and Colorado were defeated, but social conservatives were fairly
divided on whether they should press these measures, knowing that they
might not withstand a Supreme Court test.

A number of commentators have noted the irony that a larger black
turnout than usual put the bans on same-sex marriage over the top. But
the fact that 94% of blacks in California voted for Mr. Obama and about
70% voted to ban same-sex marriage there should be more than an odd
historical footnote. That the large Hispanic populations in all three
states also “split their tickets” in this way should make Republicans
sit up and take notice. Mr. Green says that “racial-minority Christians
are among the most socially traditional” groups in the country.

According to exit polls, Mr. McCain lost the Roman Catholic vote by
nine percentage points, a seven-point decline from President Bush’s
2004 election. Since Catholics have gone with the winner in the past
four elections, and since they are such a disparate group to begin
with, it is hard to know what to make of this. What is clear
is that Mr. McCain’s most serious loss was among nonwhite Catholics,
the vast majority of whom are Hispanic. Republicans, with all of their
nativist rhetoric, have given this group little choice at the ballot
box.

Mr. Bush’s strategists have long argued that Hispanics, in large
part because of their socially traditional views, are a natural fit for
the GOP. This claim has been largely ignored by the rest of the party.
The cultural parts of the platform alone won’t bring Hispanics to a
party that regularly threatens to kick their kin out of the country.
But as Republicans head into the wilderness, they should remember to
keep the faith.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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