Tim Montgomerie writes:
Two weeks ago, America's religious conservatives had some of the best news they'd heard in a long time. The US Supreme Court upheld George W Bush's ban on the gruesome partial birth abortion procedure by five votes to four. The President's appointment of John Roberts and then Samuel Alito had made a difference. The successful nomination of John Roberts as Chief Justice will have the most lasting effect on the Court. Roberts isn't just a conservative - he's a persuader. Other judges - Scalia, Thomas and, perhaps, Alito, too - have the power to beat opponents in arguments but not always winsomely. 'Roberts is worth two judges,' one leading conservative commentator told BritainAndAmerica.
America's religious conservatives are not so happy at the Republican hopefuls for 2008, however. Saturday's Wall Street Journal reviewed the main contenders:
"We have Rudy Giuliani, a twice divorced, pro-choice, supporter of civil unions; Mitt Romney, a Mormon who as recently as his 1994 Senate campaign against liberal icon Sen. Ted Kennedy was pro-choice and wishy-washy on gay marriage; John McCain, who voted against the gay marriage amendment and who crafted the campaign finance laws that have done much to damage the anti-abortion efforts of religious conservatives; or perhaps Fred Thompson, who supported McCain-Feingold and says that gay marriage is a state issue."
The WSJ quote comes from a profile-style interview with Richard Land of the influential Southern Baptist Convention. Mr Land told Naomi Schaefer Riley that Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee and Duncan Hunter were closer to his worldview but "the problem with those three guys is they don't give any indication they can win."
An unhappy religious right represents a real problem for the GOP. It provides the footsoldiers of the Republican movement and the gay marriage ballot probably meant the difference between winning and losing Ohio (and hence the White House) in 2004. But there are now four main challenges in keeping religious conservatives inside the GOP tent:
- Dissatisfaction with the contenders for the GOP nomination. All of the Republican hopefuls have weaknesses and promises of a socially conservative VP nominee or of Supreme Court appointees in the mould of Alito and Roberts may not be enough to energise a satisfactory number of religious conservatives.
- Disappointment with George W Bush. Although traditional evangelicals warm to President Bush's personal story and his judicial appointments (Land describes them as "24-carat"), many feel disappointed, unrealistically, at his failure to successfully progress the constitutional ban on gay marriage. There are also mixed feelings about the President's Faith-Based Initiative. Now in the very safe hands of Jay Hein the White House Office of Faith and Community-Based Initiatives has often worried evangelicals who have worried about the federal government co-opting religious ministries.
- The changing nature of Christian America. Evangelicals - particularly younger evangelicals - care about a broader and broader range of issues. Most remain solidly pro-life but younger Christians are more tolerant of same-sex relationships. Just as importantly they are closely engaged with international justice issues and the environment. American Christians have powered the administration's efforts in Sudan, against malaria and world-beating legislation against human trafficking. There are not many traditional leaders of the religious right who fully appreciate the scale of the changed worldview within their congregation. One emerging thinker who does is former Bush speechwriter, Mike Gerson. His forthcoming book on conservatism will set out new priorities on environmental stewardship (which many Christians cheesily call 'Creation care') and poverty-fighting.
- The faith-friendly Democrats. The Democrats are aware of their 'Christian problem' and their two leading contenders are much more 'faith-friendly' than either Al Gore or John Kerry. Hillary Clinton has become known for regularly attending Senate prayer breakfasts and has talked about the need to reduce the number of abortions. Barack Obama recently shared a platform with Rick Warren, author of the best-selling Purpose-Driven Life. Christian hardliners won't be tempted by either candidate but the Democrats only need to convert a relatively small number to get on the winning side of the increasingly familar 50/50 elections.
The GOP's best hope of keeping religious conservatives on side may depend upon the war on terror. Christian conservatives are most supportive of the President's hawkish approach and may be willing to forgive Giuliani and McCain more liberal positions on once trump issues if they are more reliable than Democrats in the war against Islamic fascism. That is certainly the view of Jonah Goldberg, expressed on National Review Online:
"[The war on terror has] changed the attitudes of many Americans, particularly conservatives, about the central crisis facing the country. It's not that pro-lifers are less pro-life... It's that they really, really believe the war on terror is for real. At conservative conferences, on blogs, and on talk radio, pro-life issues have faded in their passion and intensity... Taken together, terrorism, Iraq, and Islam have become the No. 1 social issue."
The contours of Christian conservatism in the USA will be a regular topic for BritainAndAmerica.