Scott Walker: W. Without the Compassion

While it’s becoming common to hear Scott Walker dismissed as a flash-in-the-pan or Flavor of the Month or Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time gaffmeister sure to be pushed aside to make way for Jeb’s Brinks truck of cash or Rubio’s glamor, there are less-apparent aspects of his appeal worth noting. That intrepid translator of the Christian Right’s codes, Sarah Posner, has a fascinating take at Religion Dispatches about Walker perfectly matching a growing mood among politically active conservative evangelicals who want a less showy but more reliable champion:

Should he run for president, Walker may very well turn out to be the 2016 cycle’s evangelical favorite—not because he ticks off a laundry list of culture war talking points, pledges fealty to a “Christian nation,” or because he’s made a show of praying publicly to curry political favor. Although by no means universal, some conservative evangelicals—those who eschew the fever swamps of talk radio, yet share the same political stances of the religious right—are weary of the old style of campaigning. They’re turned off by the culture war red meat, the dutiful but insincere orations of piety….

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last month, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote that in 2016 evangelicals won’t be looking to candidates to “know the words to hymns,” “repeat clichés about appointing Supreme Court justices who will ‘interpret the law, not make the law,’” or to use “‘God and country’ talk borrowed from a 1980s-era television evangelist.”

Moore “has a good feel of the pulse of evangelicals” and “represents a wide segment” of them, said Tobin Grant, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University and blogger on religion and politics for Religion News Service. Unlike his predecessor, Richard Land, known for inflaming the culture wars, Moore’s “focus is more on religious and social concerns than directly political ones” and has “less interest in changing DC and more interest in keeping DC out of the way of the church,” Grant said.

These evangelicals are listening for a candidate who can signal he is “one of us” without pandering. Both evangelical and Catholic candidates who have earned the culture warrior label for their strident pronouncements—Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, or Mike Huckabee—are seen as embarrassing embodiments of stereotypes these conservative Christians would like to shed….

Walker hits the right evangelical notes without overplaying his hand—and that’s exactly the way they want him to keep it. John Mark Reynolds, professor of philosophy and provost at Houston Baptist University, said that Walker “would do well to do nothing to appeal to us. We get it. He’s one of us. He sounds like one of us. He leans forward like one of us. He answers questions like one of us.”

Now this isn’t to say the new strain among conservative Christians involves any changes in their positions on culture-war issues, or a tolerance for different opinions: it’s a matter of tone and emphasis–and of trust.

You may recall how effective George W. Bush was in dropping little indicators of his evangelical piety (even though, technically, he attended a mainline Protestant church), like a secret handshake, when he showed up on the campaign trail in the 2000 cycle: Bible quotes, allusions to hymns, and evangelical catch-phrases were modestly arrayed in his rhetoric–not abrasively, but just enough that believers saw it, and as with Walker, knew he was “one of us.” Bush, of course, also grounded much of his “compassionate conservative” agenda in church work and religious sentiment. It seems that with Walker conservative evangelicals don’t much feel the need for compassion, which is a good thing, since it’s not one of his more obvious traits. No, they want something else:

Instead of talking about opposition to marriage equality, evangelical activists say, religious freedom has become the new defining mantra. Unlike marriage equality, on which white evangelicals, particularly Millennials, are divided, religious freedom unifies them like no other issue but abortion.

“What will matter to evangelicals,” Moore wrote in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, “is how the candidate, if elected president, will articulate and defend religious-liberty rights.”

The religious liberty issue is, for evangelicals, a “four-alarm fire,” said Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, part of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He said evangelicals expect the candidates “to have the courage of their convictions to persuade people about what’s going on.”

From the Hobby Lobby litigation to cases involving florists, bakers, and photographers refusing to provide services for same-sex ceremonies, the issue has been percolating in the evangelical community for years. In recent weeks, conservative Christians have talked and written prolifically about Barronelle Stutzman, a Washington state florist found liable under the state’s anti-discrimination laws for refusing to provide flowers for a long-time gay customer’s wedding, and Kelvin Cochran, the Atlanta fire chief fired after revelations about anti-gay comments he wrote in a book.

It requires a great deal of paranoia and passive-aggressive claims of “persecution,” of course, to take isolated collisions between anti-discrimination laws and religious principles into a major threat to the immensely privileged position of Christians in the United States. But it seems Christian Right leaders are up to the task, and here, too, Walker, with his quiet but insistent talk about death threats from the enemies he’s made in Wisconsin, fills the bill.

Speaking in 2012 to a teleconference with activists from Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, Walker said his faith has enabled him to rise above the “vitriol, and the constant, ongoing hatred” during the recall election he faced in the wake of his anti-union legislation, which has crippled the state’s once-iconic labor movement. Along with the unmistakable contrast of his church-going family with the profane and progressive activists, Walker cited two Bible verses. He didn’t recite them, but for anyone who knows their Bible—as Walker, the son of a Baptist pastor, does—the meaning was clear. The verses that helped him withstand the hatred were Romans 16:20 (“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you”) and Isaiah 54:17 (“no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.”)

Don’t know about you, but I’d interpret those two verses as consolatory promises of Christian vengeance, not turn-the-other-cheeck pacifism. And so it may be Walker is giving exactly the right impression of representing stolid but not showy vindicator who’s in for a long fight with secular socialists and their union allies.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.