In recent elections the so-called "religious right" has demonstrated a powerful influence. Beginning in the late 1970s with Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, it has exerted impressive clout in the Republican Party at both state and national levels, arguably providing George W. Bush with the support that won him the GOP nomination in 2000 and even giving him the push that then propelled him into the White House.
It is not too much to say that no one aspiring to a Republican presidential nomination can now afford to do without the support, or at least the tacit approval, of the religious right. All of the major contenders for the 2008 nomination -- John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson -- affirm their personal devotion to religious principles, and there seems no reason to doubt their sincerity.
But that, of course, is not to say that all four are equally persuasive in their statements on the subject of the importance of religion as a component of their worldview, and hence as a factor in their approach to policy issues. Of the four, Romney is probably the least vulnerable on the matter, since he makes no bones about his devout Mormonism -- indeed, he has come under criticism from adherents of other denominations precisely because of it. McCain and Thompson have been less outspoken, but have thus far successfully avoided letting the subject become a major issue among their critics. Giuliani, a nominal Roman Catholic who does not attend Mass and is currently married to his third wife, has raised eyebrows among some seriously religious political observers, but the effect of this has hitherto been unclear.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the religious right has not thus far settled on one contender as its favorite -- as it unmistakably (and successfully) did in recent presidential elections. Some of its opponents have eagerly taken this as a sign of what The New York Times recently hailed as "the deep divide in the Christian conservative movement," but it is actually more an indication that the religious right is at least relatively satisfied with the religious credentials of all the likely Republican contenders. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who is an outspoken Christian conservative and had briefly hoped to be the Republican nominee himself, has thrown his support to McCain. Romney and Thompson have picked up the backing of a number of other conservative religious figures. And now Pat Robertson, a leading Christian conservative by any standard (he also controls the Christian Broadcasting Network), has "stunned" various easily stunned people by endorsing Giuliani!
Does all this portend a sharp split in the ranks of the religious right? Not at all. It is probably healthier, all things considered, when that movement is divided among several contenders for the nomination, rather than piling all its chips on just one.
Some political analysts have sought to explain Robertson's endorsement of Giuliani as an effort to resuscitate his own role as a leader of the religious right, which they say has been somewhat diminished in recent years. And it may well be that Robertson, scanning the field of candidates and noting a relative shortage of religious support for Giuliani, was influenced to some degree by the thought that backing him would reflect credit on himself -- especially if, as seems entirely possible, Giuliani scoops up the nomination. But supporting a candidate as generally attractive as Giuliani hardly needs a motive that Machiavellian to inspire it.
The key point here is that all of the major Republican contenders have now obtained the blessing of acknowledged leaders of the religious right. That removes one potent factor from consideration as the race for the nomination goes forward -- and will constitute a major plus thereafter, as the general election campaign gets under way.