WASHINGTON -- When the founder of the Christian Coalition, who blames national disasters on abortion, gives his support to a thrice-married, pro-abortion, pro-gay-rights Catholic, does religion really matter anymore?
Pat Robertson's endorsement Wednesday of Rudy Giuliani for president just shifted "strange bedfellows" into "the weird turn pro" category. Robertson, who famously blamed Hurricane Katrina on our wanton ways -- and urged the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- announced his vote of confidence, saying that Giuliani has "proven time and time again that he is a social conservative."
Except that Giuliani hasn't and isn't, but that's OK because what Giuliani has proved time and again is that he was mayor of New York City on 9/11. And, as Robertson also said, Giuliani can be relied upon to defend the country against "the blood lust of Islamic terrorists."
Robertson's endorsement must have been a sticky moment for Giuliani, who couldn't rightly say, "no thanks," even if he might not relish being captured in the same frame with a man whose fellow evangelicals consider him only intermittently sane.
Generally speaking, politicians can move pretty quickly when they're about to be caught by the camera lens standing next to a fellow known for saying such things as liberal judges are a greater danger to America "than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings."
Then again, Robertson still holds sway with a daily average audience of almost 900,000 with his Christian Broadcasting Network's "The 700 Club." And Giuliani shares Robertson's concern about liberal judges, if not his sense that they're more dangerous than terrorists. Every chance he gets, Giuliani assures conservative audiences that, if elected, he'll appoint strict constructionist judges.
To evangelicals such as Robertson, that promise can be understood to mean: "I'm really on your team, but I have to get elected, don't I?"
But even conservative judges and Giuliani's tough posture on terrorism fail to tell what many believe is really behind Robertson's anointing of the most liberal Republican candidate for president. The real issue isn't fetuses or embryos or same-sex unions or bearded bad guys.
When it comes to that ol' time religion, nothing quite sparks the evangelical spirit like the thought of Bill and Hillary back in the White House and all the attendant imagery forever tattooed on buttoned-up brains.
Depending on one's view, Robertson is either unprincipled or brave. In fact, he has taken a courageous step by creating a crack in the conservative religious firmament. This at a time when religious conservatives have been threatening to stay home from the polls -- or support a third-party candidate -- rather than compromise principle.
Meeting in Salt Lake City recently, evangelical leaders discussed the third-party alternative. A Pew Research Center survey last month found that half of white evangelical Republicans would consider voting for a third-party candidate if Giuliani and Hillary face off next November.
But Robertson, for all his bluster and blunder, may have shifted the tectonic plates by giving evangelicals a green light to support Giuliani and forcing the question: Can evangelicals really afford to let Clinton win just so they can brag about being more virtuous than everyone else?
Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, suggests Robertson's endorsement shows a growing pragmatic streak among religious conservatives. Many have learned, Cromartie says, that "politics is the art of making choices between relative goods and lesser evils.
Some evangelicals still insist they won't vote for Giuliani. Focus on the Family's James Dobson is one. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is another. Both have cited Giuliani's support for abortion and his multiple marriages.
Speaking to Newsweek last month, Land compared a vote for Giuliani to voting for a Klansman and said, "I cannot vote for someone who believes that it's all right to stop a beating heart."
Land also has said that evangelicals might support Mitt Romney despite theological differences. Cromartie agrees, but again, Hillary matters most.
"They just don't want her," he says of evangelicals.
So in 2008, if terror trumps bioethics, and Hillary puts terror in evangelical hearts, what does religious conviction mean? Is religion primarily a matter of virtue -- or of pragmatism?
Next November will tell. In the meantime, a glance at two recent surveys by the Pew Research Center provides a hint: Both parties' front-runners, Clinton and Giuliani, also lead among a broad spectrum of religious groups.
For now, it would appear that pragmatism is virtue, and religion on the right means beating Hillary.