Christian Right Not Fading, But It May Be Splintering

One emerging irony of the 2016 GOP presidential nominating cycle is that the Christian Right may have too many options for its own good.

There are no likely candidates who dissent–as did, say, Rudy Giuliani in 2008–from the Christian Right’s core positions. So far, there’s no one who will even criticize the Christian Right–as did John McCain back in 2000 when he gave a speech comparing Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Meanwhile, there are two probable candidates that did extremely well with this constituency in past presidential contests (Huckabee in 2008, Santorum in 2012), another who had sizable elite Christian Right support during the brief period he was viable (Rick Perry), two who are egregiously pandering and panting for such support right now (Cruz and Jindal), and one who for all his shortcomings in their eyes, is still closely associated with one of the emotional high points of recent Christian Right history, the Terri Schiavo affair. There’s not much Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have done to offend these people, though they may be disliked for other reasons.

But while nobody can ignore or diss Christian Right voters or their actual or self-designated leaders, their very prosperity within the GOP makes it less likely they can have the impact on the contest some want. Indeed, as Trip Gabriel shows at the New York Times today, Christian Right leaders are deeply divided over whether it makes sense to unite around a particular candidate, and almost certainly even more divided over the identity of their champion if they had one. War horses like Tony Perkins and Gary Bauer and Richard Viguerie are scheming to force some sort of collective decision. But others aren’t buying it:

Some on the Christian right remain skeptical of the effort to settle on a single socially conservative candidate. Similar attempts in 2008 and 2012 collapsed because no consensus was reached, they say. And it is unclear what impact an endorsement by national social conservatives would have on a primary competition that will probably be driven by gobs of outside money, debate performances and long months of retail campaigning.

“I think it’s a useless process,” said David Lane, who arranges expenses-paid meetings of conservative pastors to hear from potential candidates, most recently at a gathering in Des Moines where Mr. Cruz and Mr. Jindal spoke. “My goal is to give the constituency access to candidates, then let them decide.”

You could call this a portfolio strategy, I suppose. But Lane is also at the center of another dispute among Christian Right folk, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, following Sarah Posner’s analysis: one between old-school culture warriors like Lane and a new breed of quieter leaders focused on less abrasive advocacy for the defensive-sounding “religious liberty” cause.

Add into that mix the usual centrifugal pressures of a large field of competing–and at least basically acceptable–candidates, and you have a recipe for big-time splintering. Thus by succeeding in pulling the entire GOP its way, the Christian Right could wind up reducing its influence on the choice of the Maximum Leader.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.