By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — God knows what has become of the religious right.
The movement of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson has been in decline for some time, but events of recent days suggest it is wandering in the political wilderness.
A fresh symptom of the trouble came during the meeting of 150 evangelical leaders in Texas this month, where the deeply divided deacons of the religious right had to take three ballots before opting to endorse Rick Santorum, who has no real chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Richard Land, a top figure in the Southern Baptist Convention, explained to NPR the choice of Santorum over Mitt Romney as such: “Before we marry the guy next door, don’t you think we ought to have a fling with a tall dark stranger and see if he can support us in the manner to which we’d like to be accustomed?”
A fling with a tall dark stranger? Marrying the guy next door? Paging Marcus Bachmann!
Things have not gone well generally for the once-vaunted movement in this electoral cycle. Preferred candidates, particularly Mike Huckabee, didn’t run. The front-runner belongs to what some Christian conservatives consider to be a cult. Michele Bachmann flopped. Rick Perry flamed out — and on exiting the race endorsed Newt Gingrich on the very day the former House speaker was publicly accused by a former wife of seeking an “open marriage.”
Perry’s flameout, in particular, shows the movement’s diminished clout and engagement. When he entered the race to Tim Tebow-like expectations last year, the Texas governor and his wife spoke about how he had been called by God to run. ”There are people seeing that burning bush,” Anita Perry recalled telling her husband. At her urging, she said, Perry “threw that fleece out there” — a biblical reference to asking God for direction, but concluded that “he truly felt like he was called to do this.”
When his candidacy began to collapse, he agreed with his wife’s assessment that he was being “brutalized” in part “because of his faith.” When he placed fifth in the Iowa caucuses, he went home to Texas to decide his course “with a little prayer and reflection.” The answer to his prayers was to stay in the race — although only, as it turned out, for another couple of weeks.
“God didn’t say, ‘I want you running,’” Perry clarified last week. “He sure didn’t tell me I was going to win.”
A few years ago, an overtly evangelical candidate such as Perry would have been formidable because of his close ties to the movement. But not this year. Religious conservatives have been withdrawing as a political force.
“It puts a lie to the idea that these people are going to take over America,” said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank. “They have a lessened expectation about what politics can do to change society.”
Self-identified evangelicals and born-again Christians are about a quarter of the U.S. population, but that doesn’t mean they vote primarily on social issues. In Iowa, 57 percent of Republican caucus-goers identified that way, but only 13 percent called abortion the most important issue, compared to 42 percent picking the economy (the top issue regardless of religion). In New Hampshire, only 6 percent of Republican primary voters thought abortion was most important.
Even the movement’s leaders can’t seem to keep their focus — as evidenced by the three ballots it took before evangelicals decided to back Santorum.
Santorum called the endorsement “miraculous” — but it barely registered in the polls in South Carolina. For religious conservatives, who in 2008 were forced to accept John McCain (a man who once branded Robertson and Falwell “forces of evil”), it’s shaping up to be another year of compromise and disappointment.
That was the message of Perry’s departure as he delivered a rambling farewell speech and endorsement of Gingrich. “There is forgiveness for those who seek God,” he said of Gingrich, “and I believe in the power of redemption, for it is a central tenet of my Christian faith.”
Perry listed “a loving God” in his credits, and a supporter he identified as “my Christian brother.” But he spoke about faith with less bravado. “I began this race with a sense of calling,” he said, but “a calling never guarantees a particular outcome.”
For Perry and the religious right, it was a welcome acknowledgment that God is no longer calling them to dominate the political landscape.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.