When the great Republican resurrection comes to pass, will conservative Christians be left behind?
Some leaders of the religious right are openly worried this week after a sprawling 98-page report released by the Republican National Committee on how the party can rebuild after its 2012 implosion made no mention of the GOP’s historic alliance with grassroots Christian “value voters.”
Specifically, the word “Christian” does not appear once in the party’s 50,000-word blueprint for renewed electoral success. Nor does the word “church.” Abortion and marriage, the two issues that most animate social conservatives, are nowhere to be found. There is nothing about the need to protect religious liberty, or promote Judeo-Christian values in society. And the few fleeting suggestions that the party coordinate with “faith-based communities” — mostly in the context of minority outreach — receive roughly as much space as the need to become more “inclusive” of gays.
To many religious conservatives, the report was interpreted as a slight against their agenda and the hard work they have done for the party.
“The report didn’t mention religion much, if at all,” said Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association. “You cannot grow your party by distancing yourself from your base, and this report doesn’t reinforce the values that attracted me and many other people into the Republican Party in the first place. It just talks about reaching out to other groups.”
Sandy Rios, an Evangelical radio host and Fox News contributor, said the RNC report’s proposals amount to a “namby-pamby” abdication of religious values, and warned that the party could soon lose the grassroots engine that has powered its electoral victories for decades.
“They should be deeply concerned they’re going to be alienating their base,” Rios said, adding, “It seems to me that the leadership of the party is intent on that course. Most Christian conservatives are not going to be party loyalists over principle, and so the GOP has a lot more to lose than Christians.”
Sean Spicer, communications director for the RNC, said the party had no intention of distancing itself from its religious base.
“They are a critical part of our party, and moving forward, they have to continue to play that essential role,” Spicer said. “The goal of the report was to look at areas where we could do much better, and in areas that needs that substantial improvement [working with conservative Christians] may not be at the top of the list because they’ve always done a fabulous job.”
Spicer also insisted that while the GOP hopes to expand its coalition, “the principles in the party are sound” and would not be abandoned. Asked whether opposition to same-sex marriage was among those principles, he said, “Yes.”
Still, the perceived snub is the latest evidence of the extent to which the the increasingly unfashionable politics of the religious right have grown isolated within its party — an embarrassment to a the Republican Establishment and to its “consultant class,” focused on winning above all; and the sworn foe of its rising libertarian strain.
Just two years ago, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was shouted down by his fellow Republicans for proposing a “social truce” on hot-button cultural issues while the nation’s leaders focused on reviving the economy. Ambitious Republicans, gearing up for the 2012 Iowa caucuses, distanced themselves from Daniels, and activists protested his invitation to speak at CPAC.
Now, the Republican National Committee itself appears to be calling for that truce.
If Republican officials feel confident that they can soften the party’s stance on social issues without any real risk of losing their religious base, it may be because the Christian right hasn’t presented a united front in nearly a decade. Not since 2004, when Evangelicals swarmed to the ballot to support a marriage amendment in Ohio, and re-elect George W. Bush, have those voters managed to coalesce around a winning presidential candidate.
In the 2008 Republican primaries, they were split between a culture-warring Mitt Romney and the insurgent Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, and neither won. Then, in 2012, conservative Evangelicals vacillated between a bevy of Republican candidates, allowing the well-financed Mormon guy — who had dropped the social agenda rhetoric and was now just talking math — to navigate his way around them and grab hold of the nomination.
“They have really been in the wilderness since then,” said Patrick Millsap, who served as Newt Gingrich’s 2012 chief of staff.
That division within the ranks of the religious right is clear even in their response to the RNC’s report.
On one hand, Wildmon’s American Family Organization, a particularly hard-line conservative Christian organization that owns 200 radio stations nationwide and runs an active grassroots network, has pledged to meet any attempt by the Republican Party to sideline its social agenda with revolt.
“The social conservatives will quit voting,” he said. “They’ll give up, they’ll be despaired. Those are the most loyal people to work for you because they’re energized because they believe their cause is something God stands for and that’s a pretty good motivator. And you take that away? You diss them? You tell them their issues aren’t important anymore? I don’t know who you’re going to be left with. I think you won’t have any troops out there. I don’t know how many country club people will go and walk door to door over the taxes issue.”
On the other hand, Ralph Reed, director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a former campaign adviser to George W. Bush, defended the RNC report, and the establishment leaders who spearheaded it.
“I know most of the members of the committee,” he said. “Some of them are personal friends of mine. I know Reince Priebus. He’s a deeply committed Christian. He’s pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-family… and the Republican Party is going to stay that way.”
And while Reed, who said he was personally consulted when the report was being assembled, disagreed with its proposal to eliminate the use of conventions and caucuses during the Republican primary season, he said he found little else in the RNC review that alarmed him.
As for the AFA’s threats of widespread Christian disillusionment, Reed said he wasn’t worried.
“I wouldn’t interpret too much into that. There are always healthy tensions and pains in growing a party,” he said. “A political party is not a church and its function is not to promulgate and support a religious doctrine.”
With reporting from CJ Lotz.