Primary Fever: Conversion Stories Trump All

I forget, in the years between presidential elections, how enthralled I tend to get with the electoral process. My wife forgets too, until she comes home (or back from the bathroom) to find that I've turned on MSNBC to catch the latest poll numbers or when she sees that I've stored more than one debate to our DVR. It's primary fever, and it's goonie and nerdy, I get it.

This year, at least at this point in the process, all my mania goes to the Republicans, since President Obama is running unchallenged by members of his party. Most of the attention has gone to the "anyone but Mitt Romney" effect--all but one major Republican candidate (the decidedly Romney-esque John Huntsman) enjoyed a brief surge as the candidate who might unseat the front-runner and heir apparent. But as an evangelical, one of the traditionally heavily-courted voting blocs in Republican politics, I'm interested in how religion is (or, more to the point, is not) playing a significant role in the selection of a candidate and, potentially, our next president.

Since the late 1970s and the emergence of the "Moral Majority" of politically savvy conservative evangelicals, the Republican party has actively (sometimes slavishly) courted the evangelical vote. President Reagan was a darling of the movement; television celebrity Pat Robertson and political activist Gary Bauer each mounted significant campaigns of their own; George W. Bush took all the momentum in 2000 when, in response to a question likely designed to make him look stupid ("What political philosopher do you most admire?"), he responded "Christ, because he changed my heart." Baptist minister and former governor Mike Huckabee put up a surprising fight for the 2008 nomination, and fellow evangelical and governor Sarah Palin galvanized voters and has changed multiple elections since her pick as John McCain's running mate.

This year, however, conservative evangelicals seem to be at a loss. The professing evangelicals in the field (including Texas governor Rick Perry and Minnesota representative Michelle Bachmann) performed poorly and dropped out early. Two Mormon candidates (including powerhouse Mitt Romney) have forced awkward statements from evangelicals either coldly rejecting him as part of "a cult" or granting him religious bona fides that papered over more than a century of evangelical suspicion. National evangelical leaders rallied around former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum as their candidate thanks to his ideological purity, but Santorum got no bump in the polls. Meanwhile South Carolina evangelicals (according to exit polls) threw their support to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Both Santorum and Gingrich are Roman Catholic, another faith tradition with a complicated relationship to evangelicalism. And then there are the lots and lots of Obama evangelicals who are waiting till the fall to get in the mix. There is, effectively, no evangelical consensus.

I find that striking. Evangelicals have long trumpeted their lack of power; persecution and marginalization are key themes in an evangelical mystique. We like to think of ourselves as inheritors of the mantle of the martyrs and keepers of a pure, countercultural Christian trust that regularly leaves us on the outs with the powers that be. And yet that's been largely a myth; evangelicals have been in many ways kingmakers in American politics for decades now.

Suddenly, that's no longer the case. Part of the reason, I'm convinced, is the bifurcation of the evangelical movement into two camps: the movement of the mind and the movement of the heart.

The evangelical brain--the folks who prioritize worldview and the principles and values that flow out of it--fall in line behind Rick Santorum. Santorum wrote the foreword to a book my evangelical employer published, a profile of the figurehead of the Intelligent Design movement, which challenges the hegemony of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Santorum's rhetoric (race-baiting comments notwithstanding) is integrationist, making the case that the origins of the universe, along with tax policy and foreign policy and gay marriage and abortion and gun rights and everything else, all flow from a common center. Faith informs every idea, for the Santorum crowd that includes Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. Santorum is purpose-driven; he answers the classic evangelical question "How then shall we live?" He gets the vote of the evangelical mind.

Newt Gingrich also makes a case from ideology. He calls himself a historian and lays claim to the title of Republican Party intellectual. But his case for the candidacy isn't one based on the brain; it's based on the heart.

No one talks about Ronald Reagan more than Newt, evoking for nostalgic evangelicals a time when the Moral Majority and its worldview orientation was in its cultural and political ascendancy. His rhetoric suggests an ideological divide that reinforces the martyrdom mystique; Newt can't wait to debate President Obama and chase his Saul Alinsky-loving, food-stamp-doling, Israel-hating booty out of office so we can get back to family values. Meanwhile, Newt's personal history has been filtered through the lens of life-change: his two failed marriages, based on his adulterous relationships, are part of a past he's repented of; his personal failings turned him to a ruthless personal inventory and an encounter with God; his life now is one of classic goodiness--he's a loving husband, father and grandfather who wants to serve his country and restore our exceptionalism by bringing us back to our roots. Newt alone among the Republican candidates owns the conversion story, and evangelicals eat that sort of thing up. While Santorum won the evangelical mind, Newt has won the heart.

At least that's my take on it. I'm a bit too feverish to fully trust my conclusions, so I welcome your feedback and critique. But I do expect that if Gingrich wins the Republican nomination, there will be a battle in the fall, alongside the ideological arguments, between Gingrich and Obama (who has his own conversion story to point people to) to prove which is the better master of the evangelical language and mystique, and so which candidate will win the heart and the vote of evangelicals--and, ultimately, whether that win will make any difference.


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