WASHINGTON, D.C-- The endorsement by televangelist Pat Robertson of Rudy Giuliani as the Republican presidential candidate is being frantically scrutinized for its deeper cultural significance. The new conventional wisdom, advanced by outlets such as The New York Times, sees a fractured and confused conservative Christian vote. They no longer share the same political beliefs and values, we’re told, and can’t be counted on to support Republican candidates, conservative or otherwise. It all signifies "the end times" for evangelicals in national politics.
This critique, though tempting, is historically flawed and politically naïve.
Let’s start with Pat Robertson. Anyone who thinks that Mr. Robertson is a weather vane for religious voters simply hasn’t been paying attention. The most influential voices in conservative Christianity have excoriated him for his chronic absurdities. Robertson’s backing of brutal African dictators such as Liberia’s Charles Taylor, his support for political assassination, his assertion that gays and feminists provoked the wrath of God and gave us the attacks of 9/11—these and other bizarre claims have made him a marginal figure among evangelicals. Faith-based voters might find good reasons to back Rudy Giuliani, but Pat Robertson’s endorsement will not be one of them.
Of course there are divergent political views among the tens of millions of voters who identify themselves as conservative Christian. There always have been: Just look at the religious debates over presidential hopefuls named Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, Carter and Reagan. The recent image of a monolithic evangelical juggernaut is the product of a feverish imagination, created in part by direct-mail fundraisers, ignorant media elites, and graduate students groping for a dissertation topic.
The chatter over the Robertson endorsement is not just a distraction; it feeds the cynicism that has tainted our political life. Most Americans appear to be exhausted by ego-driven preachers declaring that "God’s man"—or woman—has finally arrived on the political stage. It’s a bi-partisan problem, of course. Bill Clinton cravenly manipulated naïve ministers as "spiritual counselors" during his impeachment crisis, while the Bush administration has fielded its own operatives to exploit a faith-based constituency. As other Republican hopefuls court religious figures, Democratic candidates genuflect before the Reverend Al Sharpton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who play racial politics like Wynton Marsalis plays the trumpet—effortlessly.
It’s an old problem, of course. During the presidential campaign of 1800, many Christian leaders denounced Thomas Jefferson as the front man for an atheistic conspiracy. Connecticut minister Timothy Dwight scolded them for their partisanship. He urged them to "exercise great…moderation and prudence, and avoid such an interference as shall tend to destroy their usefulness as ministers of the gospel." Too many preachers, enamored with politics, have debased themselves and the redemptive message of the gospel—exactly as Dwight predicted they would.
What’s remarkable about conservative Christians is not that their political judgments differ. What’s remarkable is something that I can’t quantify, yet nonetheless it’s something I’ve noticed over nearly two decades of writing about religion and politics in America. As a group—regardless of race, gender or denomination—orthodox Christians retain a core set of beliefs about the dignity of human life, the importance of the family, the enduring value of America’s democratic creed, and the existence of radical evil in a fallen world.
All of these beliefs have been fiercely challenged, even scorned, by America’s elite institutions, from Harvard to Hollywood. Yet many believers—many voters—have not lost faith in these concepts. Despite a culture awash in doubt and disdain, they remain very much a part of evangelical assumptions. If ideas have political consequences, then this cluster of ideas will, once again, influence the outcome of a presidential race.
Joe Loconte is a columnist for the London-based BritainAndAmerica.com and a commentator on religion for National Public Radio. His latest book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.