A Loud ‘n’ Proud Christian Right

The theory that politically active conservative Christians are entering one of their cyclical eras of quietism or at least looking for a different tone took a blow in Waukee, Iowa, yesterday, as Republican proto-candidates for president trooped to the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s big 2015 cattle call and were loud ‘n’ proud as ever in their commitment to the culture wars. Nothing about the reported vibe at the brightly colored stadium-seated Des Moines suburban mega-church suggested a lowering of temperatures or an appetite for a different menu of issues.

Indeed, the one presidential wannabe who should have had the least to prove to this particular audience, Rick Santorum, appears to have left the audience cold with a speech heavily focused on economic issues, or so reports National Review‘s Brendan Bordelon:

The audience didn’t clap much, and when they did it was usually polite and perfunctory. Lines that felt like they were meant to be showstoppers were at times met with awkward silences.

Part of that may have been due to his choice of subject matter. While speakers like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal emphasized Christian credentials and Rand Paul and Scott Walker pushed muscular foreign policies, Santorum was selling a populist economic message that didn’t seem to land.

Meanwhile, the pols with the most heavy-handed culture-war messages, particularly on the meta-issue of “religious liberty,” got the crowd rocking and rolling. We now understand the timing of Bobby Jindal’s New York Times op-ed last week taunting other Republicans for their fear of economic pressure against laws sanctioning holy discrimination, and all but inviting a boycott of his own state of Louisiana. The sanctuary at Point of Grace Church was littered with reprints of the piece, and his speech pretty much echoed it.

Similarly, Mike Huckabee, an old friend to the Christian Right of Iowa, did his thrilling paranoid number on the impending “criminalization of Christianity.” And Rand Paul reprised his jiu-jitsu move on abortion, boasting that he’s turned the tables on the godless baby-killers by refusing to answer questions about exceptions to an abortion ban until Democrats are forced to answer questions about late-term abortions. Ted Cruz adapted Jonah Goldberg’s famous and fatuous “liberal fascism” label for those unwilling to carve out a self-designated area where religious folk can disregard the law.

And Scott Walker, who unluckily drew the final spot on a five-hour program that ran an hour long, soothed his sleepy audience by devoting a chunk of his speech to readings from the evangelical best-seller Jesus Calling, though he did work in his own signature claims that he and his supporters are being persecuted by labor zealots in Wisconsin.

If I am not mistaken, every speaker at the event at some point condemned same-sex marriage, or at a minimum its extension via the courts. And it’s worth noting that this issue has been even bigger in Iowa Christian Right circles than it has been nationally, thanks to an early Iowa Supreme Court decision invalidating a state same-sex marriage ban, which became an organizing focus for conservatives who successfully removed a couple of justices from the offending Court.

This is hardly the last or the definitive Christian Right clambake in Iowa this year, of course; the uniquely Iowan Family Leader organization will hold its “summit” in July. Jeb Bush didn’t show in Waukee, and Marco Rubio gave his usual heavy-on-autobiography address that appeared mainly intended to refute rumors he wasn’t going to “play” in Iowa.

All in all, though, talk of conservative evangelicals or traditionalist Catholics wanting to turn down the volume and withdraw from the culture wars into a more defensive posture seem a bit premature, at least in Iowa, where the campfires still burn brightly.

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.