Commentary Magazine


Topic: Christian conservatives

Could Indiana RFRA Debate Influence 2016? Not in the Way Moderates Think.

To listen to most of the mainstream media, the debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a disaster for the Republican Party. They’re certainly right about Governor Mike Pence, whose bumbling response to the controversy put an end to any 2016 speculation for him. But while liberals believe the groupthink response from the media that depicted the possibility that some bakers and florists might use the law to discriminate against gays illustrated how out of touch the GOP is with popular culture and opinion, a lot of conservatives drew a very different conclusion. Though they have been taking a beating on it, the primary response to this may not be the sort of rethinking of the issue that characterized the actions of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who refused to sign a similar bill into law last week after he saw what happened to Pence. Though the media may consider this counter-intuitive, the rush to brand anyone who might dissent from the new consensus on gay marriage as a bigot may actually help energize evangelicals and aid the efforts of those, like Ted Cruz, who are betting on a resurgent Christian conservative vote to carry them to relevance, if not victory.

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To listen to most of the mainstream media, the debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a disaster for the Republican Party. They’re certainly right about Governor Mike Pence, whose bumbling response to the controversy put an end to any 2016 speculation for him. But while liberals believe the groupthink response from the media that depicted the possibility that some bakers and florists might use the law to discriminate against gays illustrated how out of touch the GOP is with popular culture and opinion, a lot of conservatives drew a very different conclusion. Though they have been taking a beating on it, the primary response to this may not be the sort of rethinking of the issue that characterized the actions of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who refused to sign a similar bill into law last week after he saw what happened to Pence. Though the media may consider this counter-intuitive, the rush to brand anyone who might dissent from the new consensus on gay marriage as a bigot may actually help energize evangelicals and aid the efforts of those, like Ted Cruz, who are betting on a resurgent Christian conservative vote to carry them to relevance, if not victory.

After Pence’s confused statements and Hutchinson’s pulling the plug on the Arkansas RFRA, liberals may be forgiven for thinking they won last week’s news cycle. The effort to stigmatize even a theoretical faith-based dissent on gay marriage succeeded in a manner that made the issue toxic. And that will continue to be the case as long as the discussion centers on the notion that refusing to take part in a gay wedding is a form of illegal discrimination rather than on the desire of an intolerant, albeit newly-minted majority to bully a religious minority into compliance or silence.

But evangelicals, or other conservatives who think the media groupthink about Indiana reflected inaccurate and biased reporting, may have a difference response from that of Hutchinson. To the contrary, and to the consternation of mainstream Republicans who believe that it is madness for the GOP to contest culture-war issues where they have already been routed, the religious right may use Indiana as an incentive to use the 2016 race to make their voices heard.

The importance of this demographic in Republican primaries is nothing new. The last two Iowa caucuses have gone to the candidate who appealed most effectively to religious conservatives—Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. But that influence may be even greater in 2016, especially if southern states coordinate what is being widely called an SEC regional primary (after college football’s Southeastern Conference) where these voters will play a major role in determining the outcome.

And that is where Ted Cruz’s gamble on mobilizing the religious right comes in. Cruz got reviews for his effort in being the first GOP candidate to formally declare for the presidency. But the consensus among most talking heads is that he is still out of touch with mainstream voters and has little chance of winning the nomination, let alone a general election. They may well be right about the latter, but in a contest where Christian conservatives largely dominate most of the early states, Cruz’s strategy seemed smart. After the Indiana kerfuffle, it may turn out to be even smarter than he thought.

It may be that the avalanche of opprobrium that rained down on the state of Indiana would serve as a deterrent to religious conservatives speaking up. Certainly those responsible for promoting the state’s economy may think so after the way a liberal lynch mob was able to intimidate corporations into joining their anti-RFRA protests, even causing some to boycott the Final Four weekend in Indianapolis.

But the spectacle of the chattering classes chanting in unison may only help convince conservatives that piping down about their beliefs are the worst mistake they can make. And candidates who seek to appeal to those who are most outraged about the way their beliefs are being anathematized could stand to benefit.

Cruz will have a lot of competition for religious conservative votes. Former Iowa winners Huckabee and Santorum are back for another try. Rick Perry will also seek to win their affection. Like Cruz, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the son of a preacher and an evangelical who has often spoken of his faith. So will Senator Marco Rubio. Even a libertarian like Rand Paul will make a pass at the religious right even if his heart isn’t in it. But Jeb Bush, who has spoken of running against the party base on issues like immigration and Common Core, is in a bad position to do so.

But the point here is that someone who gets out early and establishes himself as the voice of conservatives will be in a far stronger position than most of those seeking to put Christian bakers and florists in the stocks think. Cruz may not sustain his effort and someone else, perhaps Walker or Rubio, who can appeal to other sectors of the party will prevail. But far from shutting up the evangelicals, the Indiana dustup may give them an added incentive not to lose control of the Republican Party to someone they perceive as a moderate like Bush. And that is very bad news for those in the GOP who think Indiana is an object lesson in how not to win a presidential election.

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Huckabee and the Other GOP Civil War

Ever since the era of Ronald Reagan, victorious Republican coalitions have always been built via coalitions of disparate but essentially compatible factions. While most of the mainstream liberal media these days tends to lump Republicans into only two categories–establishment types and Tea Party extremists–the same groupings that worked together to elected Reagan as well as the first and second George Bush are still there. Fiscal conservatives, libertarians, social conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks are still the building blocks of the right’s hope to take back Congress and the White House. But the days of GOP unity are long gone as some elements of that coalition are already at odds. Libertarians led by Senator Rand Paul have already clearly broken with the conservative consensus on maintaining a strong American presence abroad and seem willing to not only retreat from the Middle East, as Barack Obama seems to intend, but to pull back on other fronts as well. Disagreements over budget cuts and the sequester have also highlighted the increasing tensions between the fiscal hawks, libertarians, and the shrinking constituency for a strong national defense. But with the campaign for the 2016 GOP nomination already in its early stages, perhaps the most fascinating battle is the one that might be brewing between libertarians and the evangelicals.

The possibility for such a conflict was displayed on Friday when, as Politico reports, the Club for Growth issued a statement slamming former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee for what it considered his insufficiently conservative fiscal record. Given that Huckabee–though a force among Christian conservatives–will be committing against a deep Republican bench of governors and senators that include Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and even the 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum, the decision of the Club to launch a pre-emptive strike on the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucus seems like a curious decision. Why would the home office of the libertarian critique of tax-and-spend liberalism think it worth the time and the effort to take a shot at a favorite of Christian conservatives in this manner? Are they really that concerned about nipping a Huckabee boomlet in the bud before it gains momentum and ultimately harms the chances of candidates like Paul, Cruz, or Walker that are more to their liking? Or is this merely the opening shot of much bigger struggle inside the conservative tent for control of the direction of the party or at least its Tea Party wing?

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Ever since the era of Ronald Reagan, victorious Republican coalitions have always been built via coalitions of disparate but essentially compatible factions. While most of the mainstream liberal media these days tends to lump Republicans into only two categories–establishment types and Tea Party extremists–the same groupings that worked together to elected Reagan as well as the first and second George Bush are still there. Fiscal conservatives, libertarians, social conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks are still the building blocks of the right’s hope to take back Congress and the White House. But the days of GOP unity are long gone as some elements of that coalition are already at odds. Libertarians led by Senator Rand Paul have already clearly broken with the conservative consensus on maintaining a strong American presence abroad and seem willing to not only retreat from the Middle East, as Barack Obama seems to intend, but to pull back on other fronts as well. Disagreements over budget cuts and the sequester have also highlighted the increasing tensions between the fiscal hawks, libertarians, and the shrinking constituency for a strong national defense. But with the campaign for the 2016 GOP nomination already in its early stages, perhaps the most fascinating battle is the one that might be brewing between libertarians and the evangelicals.

The possibility for such a conflict was displayed on Friday when, as Politico reports, the Club for Growth issued a statement slamming former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee for what it considered his insufficiently conservative fiscal record. Given that Huckabee–though a force among Christian conservatives–will be committing against a deep Republican bench of governors and senators that include Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and even the 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum, the decision of the Club to launch a pre-emptive strike on the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucus seems like a curious decision. Why would the home office of the libertarian critique of tax-and-spend liberalism think it worth the time and the effort to take a shot at a favorite of Christian conservatives in this manner? Are they really that concerned about nipping a Huckabee boomlet in the bud before it gains momentum and ultimately harms the chances of candidates like Paul, Cruz, or Walker that are more to their liking? Or is this merely the opening shot of much bigger struggle inside the conservative tent for control of the direction of the party or at least its Tea Party wing?

What needs to be first understood about these core GOP constituencies is that there is considerable overlap between those who call themselves Tea Partiers and those who identify with Christian conservative causes. Every single one of those Republican leaders who have sought to mobilize party support on behalf of cutting government spending and holding the line on taxes can appeal to evangelicals on key issues like abortion. Indeed, support for the pro-life position is virtually a given in the contemporary Republican Party and encompasses a consensus that even includes so-called moderates like Christie.

That said, although Democrats have emphasized social issues in the last two election cycles as they sought to smear their opponents as waging a faux “war on women” on issues like abortion and the ObamaCare contraception mandate, most Republicans have spent more time in recent years talking about fiscal issues and ObamaCare than abortion. Many of those GOP candidates who were labeled as culture warriors, like the disastrous Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin, not only lost but helped sink other Republicans as well. As a result, in a party that was primarily focused on stopping or repealing ObamaCare, we haven’t heard as much from Christian conservatives.

But the 2012 GOP primaries should have reminded us that the social-issue vote could still be a powerful force. By winning over the same constituency that made Huckabee a force in 2008, Rick Santorum came from the back of the pack to be the last man standing in the Republican contest other than the eventual nominee Mitt Romney. If groups like the Club for Growth are worried about Huckabee returning to the presidential fray it is because they know that not only is his core constituency an important voting bloc, but that those who identify as evangelicals are often some of the same people rallying to the Tea Party banner.

With a little more than two years to go before that crucial 2016 Iowa caucus, it’s far from clear how exactly these factions or the potential candidates will sort themselves out. But whoever emerges as the frontrunner in Iowa is going to have to appeal to both of these key constituencies. Christie may hope to win via Romney’s more centrist approach as the sole moderate conservative in the field. But as Santorum proved, anyone who can corner the evangelical vote will have a chance in Iowa and many other states. Their votes will be all the more crucial since so many potential candidates will be competing for the same libertarian and Tea Party votes.

Blasting Huckabee, who has shut down the radio show he had for the last year and a half and appears to be gearing up for another presidential run, may seem premature. But the willingness of one of the leading libertarian/fiscal conservative think tanks to put him in the cross-hairs shows that the real GOP civil war may not be the bally-hooed conflict between the Karl Rove types and the grass roots activists that we’ve been hearing so much about in the last year. Instead it may turn out to be a complicated and often confusing battle for the hearts and minds of fiscal conservatives who also happen to think of themselves as Christian conservatives.

That’s why Club for Growth seems so eager to take out Huckabee before he even gets started as well as why many of those GOP candidates who have been obsessing about ObamaCare and taxes in the last year may now start to spend more time talking about abortion and other issues of interest to evangelicals. The Republican who can best unite both factions will have a substantial advantage in 2016.

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Rand Paul’s Israel Problem

Anyone doubting that Rand Paul has become one of the Republican Party’s most influential figures need only look at the way he helped influence the abortive congressional debate about Syria. While the decision of House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to back a strike on the Assad regime swayed few in their caucus, there was little doubt that the libertarian/isolationist wing of the GOP that Paul has led had made it unlikely that a majority could be found for supporting a resolution authorizing the use of force. But there is a difference between rising influence and a workable coalition that could elect Paul president.

Paul’s problem is that while he may have the support of the party’s growing libertarian wing, those who assume that the party’s conservative majority will fall into place behind the Kentucky senator in 2016 seem to have forgotten that social and Christian conservatives still represent a more powerful voting bloc than the movement Rand inherited from his father Ron. And the gap between the Paul franchise’s views on several issues and those of the religious right is not inconsiderable. Bridging the gap on some social issues may not be a big problem, as Paul is reliably pro-life. But his foreign-policy views—in particular his attitude toward Israel—may be a much greater obstacle. Paul made a concerted effort last winter to woo supporters of Israel that paid off with some initial success. But since then it appears that most of those who initially swooned when Paul showed interest have sobered up and realized his visit to the Jewish state didn’t alter his isolationist views. While the senator continues to insist he is a good friend to Israel, some of his comments in a piece in BuzzFeed published last Friday undermine that claim:

“I think some within the Christian community are such great defenders of the promised land and the chosen people that they think war is always the answer, maybe even preemptive war. And I think it’s hard to square the idea of a preemptive war and, to me, that overeagerness [to go to] war, with Christianity.”

It was possible for Paul to make the case against intervention in Syria without dragging Israel into the argument, let alone the fervent evangelical backing for the Jewish state. But the ease with which he shifted from his distaste for the Syrian conflict to mischaracterizing pro-Israel views in such an extreme fashion is telling. That’s the kind of comment that smacks of Ron Paul’s distaste for Israel and its supporters more than the attempt by his son to take their family franchise mainstream. But if Paul thinks these kind of remarks in which such evangelicals are labeled anti-Christian warmongers will help him allay the doubts of that community about his suitability for the presidency, he’s dreaming.

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Anyone doubting that Rand Paul has become one of the Republican Party’s most influential figures need only look at the way he helped influence the abortive congressional debate about Syria. While the decision of House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to back a strike on the Assad regime swayed few in their caucus, there was little doubt that the libertarian/isolationist wing of the GOP that Paul has led had made it unlikely that a majority could be found for supporting a resolution authorizing the use of force. But there is a difference between rising influence and a workable coalition that could elect Paul president.

Paul’s problem is that while he may have the support of the party’s growing libertarian wing, those who assume that the party’s conservative majority will fall into place behind the Kentucky senator in 2016 seem to have forgotten that social and Christian conservatives still represent a more powerful voting bloc than the movement Rand inherited from his father Ron. And the gap between the Paul franchise’s views on several issues and those of the religious right is not inconsiderable. Bridging the gap on some social issues may not be a big problem, as Paul is reliably pro-life. But his foreign-policy views—in particular his attitude toward Israel—may be a much greater obstacle. Paul made a concerted effort last winter to woo supporters of Israel that paid off with some initial success. But since then it appears that most of those who initially swooned when Paul showed interest have sobered up and realized his visit to the Jewish state didn’t alter his isolationist views. While the senator continues to insist he is a good friend to Israel, some of his comments in a piece in BuzzFeed published last Friday undermine that claim:

“I think some within the Christian community are such great defenders of the promised land and the chosen people that they think war is always the answer, maybe even preemptive war. And I think it’s hard to square the idea of a preemptive war and, to me, that overeagerness [to go to] war, with Christianity.”

It was possible for Paul to make the case against intervention in Syria without dragging Israel into the argument, let alone the fervent evangelical backing for the Jewish state. But the ease with which he shifted from his distaste for the Syrian conflict to mischaracterizing pro-Israel views in such an extreme fashion is telling. That’s the kind of comment that smacks of Ron Paul’s distaste for Israel and its supporters more than the attempt by his son to take their family franchise mainstream. But if Paul thinks these kind of remarks in which such evangelicals are labeled anti-Christian warmongers will help him allay the doubts of that community about his suitability for the presidency, he’s dreaming.

By talking about pre-emptive war, Paul was already staking out the isolationist position on Iran in which it is clear he will oppose any action to avert the nuclear threat from that Islamist regime. But even if we restrict the discussion to Syria, Paul’s animus for the pro-Israel community is hard to disguise. There was a reasonable case to be made for staying out of the Syrian conflict, but his willingness to smear Christians in this manner is a sign of just how great the gap is between Paul’s positions and those who worry about the implications of his isolationist views on the Jewish state.

War should always be a last resort. But Paul’s ideological opposition to a pro-active American policy aimed at backing our friends and limiting the influence of our enemies is one that undermines U.S. security as well as making life more dangerous for Israel is already considerable. As it turns out, President Obama, whose feckless retreat from half-hearted intervention to a position that, in a strange echo of Ron Paul’s beliefs, abandons the Middle East to Russia and Iran, is giving us a limited preview of what a Paul presidency would be like for the region.

It is one thing, as Paul acknowledged to BuzzFeed, for Republicans to oppose intervention when advocated by President Obama. But it will be quite another thing when the senator is forced to defend these views and his pot shot against Christian friends of Israel in a GOP primary in 2016. Isolationism may have taken root among some Tea Partiers, but it will be a hard sell for Paul to convince Evangelicals that he can be trusted to defend the U.S. against Islamists and to maintain an alliance with Israel that he has never been that enthusiastic about.

Paul’s lukewarm Jewish charm offensive last winter made it clear he understands that it would be impossible for anyone to win the GOP nomination by sticking to his father’s foreign-policy views, which are in many respects indistinguishable from the far left. But flushed with the success of his campaign to expand the isolationist wing of the party on issues like drones, the NSA intercepts, and Syria, Paul has gotten sloppy. That quote about Christians won’t be forgotten when those voters must choose the next Republican presidential candidate. 

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