For months, the political chattering class has delighted in what they perceive as the crumbling of the powerful social conservative coalition. The New York Times, always looking to denigrate social conservatives, has reported on “The Evangelical Crackup” and the “deep divide in the Christian conservative movement.”
Some conservatives even have echoed the Times’ premise. They were conservatives, but they were not evangelical Christian conservatives. Yet, they waxed eloquent about the thinking of conservative Christians, some going as far as saying that evangelicals had finally “grown up” or “matured” in their judgment. Such statements reek of condescension.
They don’t seem to understand the movement or its leaders. And they shouldn’t look to the New York Times for insight.
Social conservatives are united on issues of life, the Supreme Court, marriage, and Second Amendment freedoms. But, the movement’s leaders are independent thinkers who are often slow to rally around a single political standard-bearer. They like to kick the tires.
In the GOP presidential primary, social conservatives are already casting a deep footprint.
Four of the movement’s leaders recently endorsed their first choice for the Republican nomination. Each picked a different candidate. Each endorsement was newsworthy. And each provided a principled rationale for their decision. All four endorsements and their news coverage demonstrated the sustained influence and importance of social conservatives in the GOP.
The biggest headline was of course Reverend Pat Robertson endorsing Rudy Giuliani. It’s also the most misunderstood news story last week.
Almost immediately, the press was panning the endorsement as a sell-out. That’s ridiculous. Mr. Robertson is not selling out. He just happens to have a J.D. from Yale Law School, so he knows what Mr. Giuliani’s commitment to appointing strict constructionists to the Supreme Court means. The fact that Ted Olson, an unimpeachable legal conservative, is Mr. Giuliani’s closest advisor on judicial matters seals the deal for many as to the kind of Supreme Court he would create.
There were even pundits saying that Mr. Robertson was putting fighting terrorists ahead of ending abortion. Nonsense. Yes, he places great emphasis on winning the war against the global network of terrorists. But, he also knows Mr. Giuliani would appoint conservative judges and believes he has the best chance to beat Hillary Clinton. Therefore, he believes supporting Mr. Giuliani gives conservatives the best chance of overturning Roe v. Wade. He didn’t drop abortion as an issue; he thinks this gives us the best chance on the issue, and is acting on principle.
Another headline was that Senator Brownback endorsed John McCain. Mr. Brownback is a conservative Catholic and among the most outspoken pro-life public officials in America. He’s committed to the full range of social conservative values. His support of Mr. McCain, who is also pro-life, speaks to his principled belief that Mr. McCain also would create a conservative Supreme Court. The National Right to Life Committee endorsed Fred Thompson for the same reasons.
Paul Weyrich’s endorsement of Mitt Romney was also a big headline. Mr. Weyrich, the founder of the Moral Majority, is one of the most admired and effective conservative leaders in the nation. While most of his work is behind-the-scenes, everyone in national politics knows that Mr. Weyrich is a tireless fighter for the conservative cause. His willingness to step forward and publicly endorse Mr. Romney when there are other committed conservatives in the race is an act of principle.
The final headline is that Don Wildmon, the head of the American Family Association, endorsed Mike Huckabee for president. Mr. Huckabee, whose rise to become a top-tier candidate has been the real Cinderella story in this campaign, has been perfect on every social issue for all his years of elected office. Mr. Wildmon is a devout evangelical who cares deeply about abortion, marriage, and family values. He is a powerhouse in Christian conservative politics. Mr. Huckabee has a real shot, but his odds are not as good as some of the other candidates. If his campaign falls short, he may be an attractive running mate to the eventual nominee.
So the story here is not a fractured coalition or evangelical leaders who have “sold-out.” Although that’s what many in the press would like you to think.
Instead, the true story is that men, acting in accordance with their principles, can come to different conclusions. It shows how a principled Yale Law School graduate can come to one conclusion, while a principled public servant in the Senate can come to another, while two major conservative leaders can come to two other conclusions. And, they did it all at the same time.
These leaders are all men of principle. Each stuck with his principles, and did what he thought was right. And each respects the others’ decisions.
Now that’s quite a story. It’s the kind of story that should lead to a productive public discussion of how people can share many of the same principles yet can come to different conclusions. What also should be discussed is how their decisions will affect other people who have yet to make one. It means this race is still wide-open. It also means social conservatives matter.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the movement’s death have been greatly exaggerated.