First up from the God Machine this week is a look at the religious right movement, which finally thought it’d help drive the Republican presidential nominating process, but which is finding itself without a candidate.

For nearly three decades, these Christian conservatives have represented the foot-soldiers in the GOP’s activist base, but have struggled badly to maintain the influence the movement and its leaders hoped to achieve. In several recent presidential cycles — most notably 1988, 1996, and 2008 — the religious right expected to play a critical role choosing the Republican nominee, only to find the GOP establishment select someone they didn’t like, respect, or relate to. (Even in 2000, perhaps the most notable exception, the religious right was most enthusiastic about Ashcroft, not Bush.)

And in 2012, it’s happening all over again. They wanted Huckabee or Pence, but they didn’t run. They liked Bachmann, but she turned out to be ridiculous. They loved Perry, but his campaign imploded. They can identify with Santorum, but don’t see him as viable. They loathe Romney — for some reason, evangelicals are reluctant to vote for a Mormon missionary who used to be a liberal — but are apparently stuck with him.

It led Amy Sullivan to note that the religious right just “can’t seem to get the candidate it wants.”

In part, then, religious conservatives are left without a winning candidate to support because stronger competitors simply chose not to run. But that fact itself indicates the relative weakness of the Religious Right. Social conservatives comprise a significant percentage of the GOP primary electorate, particularly in early states like Iowa and South Carolina. The prospect of their unified support should have been tempting enough to persuade a candidate who pleases Religious Right leaders to enter the race. By the time they were able to find a candidate willing to run, however, it was too late in the campaign cycle for Perry to ever get his footing, even if he hadn’t also suffered from a habit of sabotaging his own cause.

But candidates also know that the Religious Right — not to mention the evangelical electorate — is too divided to be able to deliver unified support. To call the movement loosely organized would be generous, and it is populated by too many would-be kingmakers.

For what it’s worth, the movement knows this — I’ve seen countless commentaries from religious right leaders over the years saying the exact same thing, and urging leaders and activists to get their act together so as to maximize their influence.

But they never do, in part because of the lack of quality candidates who appeal to the movement; in part because of internal divisions; and in part because the Republican Party establishment generally prefers that Christian conservatives be seen and not heard.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), reversing the bipartisan traditions of the last quarter century in Madison, is demanding that the tree in the center of Wisconsin’s Capitol Rotunda be called a “Christmas tree,” not a “holiday tree.” (thanks to V.S. for the tip)

* Radical TV preacher Pat Robertson believes a recent earthquake in Oklahoma might be a sign of the End Times.

* A Republican state representative in Tennessee honored Veterans’ Day by arguing that Muslim-American soldiers in the U.S. military should be forced from the Armed Services, simply because of their faith.

* A controversial Christian preacher in Tennessee, who recommends harsh use of “the rod” to discipline toddlers, has a popular self-published book that’s been tied to a child’s death in Tennessee. (thanks to R.P. for the tip)

* And in Detroit, a massive prayer rally known as TheCall is making the area’s Muslim-American community nervous, and for good reason. (thanks to Z.P. for the tip)

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.