The Christian Right’s aspiration to create a reliable voting monolith dates back well beyond 1980. It was actually in 1928 when conservative ministers and congregants first began to flex partisan muscle for the GOP in a fashion that produced undeniable results. Texas, for example—a state that had never voted Republican up to that time—went for Herbert Hoover over the Democrat, and the first Catholic to run for President, Al Smith. This happened largely through the efforts of clergymen, such as the Reverend J. Frank Norris of Fort Worth, following his celebrated trial for first-degree murder. It was the same in New York, with preachers such as John Roach Straton of Manhattan organizing other ministers and effectively blocking Smith’s efforts to even carry the state where he then served as governor. In Kentucky, it was evangelist Mordecai Ham (the man under whose preaching Billy Graham was converted) who helped carry that state for Hoover.
But this success was short-lived and soon swallowed up in the zeitgeist of the Great Depression. The next serious effort to build the Christian Right into a political force came during the early days of the Cold War, with anti-communism serving as a unifier. However, most of the prominent clergymen leading the charge—such as Carl McIntire and Billy James Hargis—found themselves ultimately relegated to various outposts on the lunatic fringe.
Then, as Jimmy Carter lamented American malaise, conservative preachers once again found their partisan voice, their flocks listened, and the Christian Right was widely credited with swinging elections.
That was then.
The faithful still attend church in droves and listen to messages from the pulpit. But these days they mostly seek guidance on matters that transcend and endure. Of course they share a cluster of values that will undoubtedly inform their lifestyle and political choices. But decisions will be arrived at through individual and private deliberation, not through movements, mobilization and top-down hyper-organization.
As thoughtful and well-informed individuals of conscience and concern, Evangelicals will certainly be part of the great national debate and decision in 2012. They will vote their values, likely along the way helping the GOP more than they did in 2008—but not as part of any officially organized bloc. It will be up to the candidates themselves to connect with Evangelical voters and speak to their concerns. From their ministers, Evangelical Christians seek guidance on how to live and worship, not how to vote. Any effort to organize them into a lockstep voting bloc these days simply won’t work, the recent Houston prayer meeting notwithstanding.