Last week’s Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference, a gathering of Christian religious conservatives, showed why this year’s Republican presidential primary might be very different from those of recent years. While in 2008 and 2012, the most vocally Christian candidate and the choice of the Republican establishment were not the same person, this time around, they might be.
In 2008, John McCain was the establishment choice to carry the Republican banner. Never an overtly religious candidate, he was challenged by a field that included former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. In 2008, Huckabee was the darling of the religious right, and did very well in the Deep South and in Bible belt states. Both he and Romney though, ultimately lost to McCain, who managed to take 31 states in the Republican primary.
In 2012, a year with an abnormally large number of Republican candidates and near-candidates, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum emerged as the favorite son of the religious right, winning 11 states in a losing effort against Romney.
A wealthy former venture capitalist, Romney played up his roots in business in the race, and captured the support of the Republican establishment. By all accounts a deeply religious man, he never ran on his faith the way Santorum did, likely out of concern that elements of the GOP’s Protestant base might react against Romney’s being a Mormon.
This year, though, while the candidates dear to the religious right are as vocal as ever about their desire to let their faith inform the way they would govern, so it is the current favorite to win the establishment GOP vote.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who like most of the major Republican presidential hopefuls, spoke before the Faith and Freedom Coalition on Friday, may not have been the most forthcoming about his personal religious journey, but he came close.
Bush discussed his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and worked hard to establish his bona fides as a defender of religion in public life. He touted his work to reduce access to abortion while serving as governor of Florida, and made it clear that no matter what the Supreme Court decides in its upcoming decision on gay marriage, he remains in support of “traditional” marriage between a man and a woman.
In general, he said, religious people in the U.S. – by which he appeared to mean Christians – are “under attack.”
“My belief is that religious freedom now is under attack in ways that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “Whether it’s the Obama administration or just the general culture, it’s important for us to recognize that it’s been rough years for religious charities and their right of conscience in this country. There seems to be an attitude…the faithful must yield.”
He went so far as to suggest that the United States ought to intervene in other countries where people are being persecuted because of their religion, though all of the examples he cited focused on Christians being persecuted, and not adherents of other faiths.
Interestingly, at a forum where playing up one’s religious beliefs seemed to be the smartest play, the last cycle’s strongest candidate with ties to the religious right, Santorum, spent the vast majority of his speech on topics typically dominated by the establishment GOP candidate, including detailed discussion of his position on jobs and national defense.
To be clear, he didn’t avoid issues important to cultural conservatives. He just got them out of the way early.
“Do you know that we’ve had one vote in the United States Senate on the issue of marriage – on the constitutional amendment to institute marriage as between one man and one woman?” he said just seconds into his appearance. “Anybody know when that vote was? It was back in 2004. Do you know who pushed for that vote, who was in the leadership at the time, who fought behind the scenes with people in our caucus just to get that vote? Yeah. I did.”
The line earned Santorum a round of applause, but he didn’t dwell on the cultural issues, explicitly warning the audience that doing do would limit the Party’s appeal to voters.
Jindal, another hopeful whose chances hinge on harnessing the religious right’s vote, was a bit less subtle, beginning his remarks by referring to the murder of nine black people at a prayer meeting in a South Carolina church just days before.
“I’m going to start by asking you to do something unusual for a political speech…given what happened in South Carolina this week, I’m going to ask you to join me in prayer. I can’t think of a better way to start our time together, so if you’ll bow your head with me and please join me in prayer…”
From there, the Louisiana governor spent a considerable amount of time speaking about his personal religious journey, but also eventually swerved into current affairs. Though he did it with far less specificity or scope than Santorum managed, he still seemed to be recognizing a new reality in the GOP field. Jeb bush might be able to unite the religious and establishment bases in a way that hasn’t happened since his brother, George W. Bush, managed it in 2000.
His Republican opponents seem to be recognizing it, and it may end up being something the eventual Democratic nominee will have to contend with as well.
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