Evangelicals Rise to Prominence Puts GOP Back to the 1980s

Matt Towery
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Posted: Apr 02, 2015 12:01 AM
Evangelicals Rise to Prominence Puts GOP Back to the 1980s

Corporate leaders and chambers of commerce are at war with those evangelical Christians who have decided to reassert themselves in the Republican political process. This war is eerily reminiscent of an earlier time when there was friction between the business wing of the GOP and Christian activists.

Make no mistake -- the rise of variations of "religious freedom" bills in GOP-dominated legislatures around the nation is no coincidence. They are supported and backed by skilled political pros and religious leaders who are tired of being left out of the American political process. They are especially weary of being treated as an afterthought in the party they believe they helped build.

Whether one agrees that the preservation of religious freedom needs an extra boost at the state level across the country is all but irrelevant to the more dispassionate study of what this effort portends for the Republican presidential primaries of 2016, and for voter turnout levels for the GOP nominee that November.

Whether one considers religious liberty bills essential or inherently destructive and bigoted, there can be no denying that the Republicans are ever so closer to the days of tele-evangelist Pat Robertson versus the George H.W. Bush GOP "establishment." But before we dive into that ancient history, here's some even older stuff.

It has been all but forgotten that part of Ronald Reagan's success in his 1980 presidential victory was the silent but massive creation of an organized evangelical Christian voter turnout. Conservative Christians had chosen to abandon the also evangelical but less politically conservative Jimmy Carter by turning out in droves to vote for Reagan and to insert their staunch pro-life agenda onto the national political stage. And they were driven to go to the polls by the use of what were then considered ultramodern techniques, such as direct mail and targeted telephone banks, all backed by big conservative money and the top strategists of the day.

By 1988, things got sticky, with a core group of leaders of that same "Christian Coalition" refusing to back Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush, in his own presidential run. This was mainly because of his less-than-ardent pro-life positions from times long past.

Instead these religious warriors backed their leader, Pat Robertson. Throughout Robertson's unsuccessful campaign for the '88 Republican nomination, these Christian activists became increasingly intent on having a voice in the Republican agenda.

Bush won the presidency in 1988, in part because he had the blessings of the beloved Reagan, but also because he ran against Mike Dukakis, a weak Democrat. Dukakis's hapless image on television prompted the GOP faithful to rise up from their chairs and flood the polling places.

What ensued was a running feud between establishment Republicans and what they called "the Robertson crowd." The conflict tore various state Republican Party organizations apart and likely contributed to Bush's defeat four years later. But ironically, it was a surge of that same evangelical vote that put George W. Bush in office in 2000 and 2004.

To say these voters were uninspired by GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008 would be an understatement. And their excitement for Mitt Romney in 2012 was lukewarm at best.

That brings us to today. Recent passage or efforts to pass religious freedom legislation in states such as Indiana, Arkansas and Georgia demonstrates that the evangelical Christian wing of the Republican Party is alive and on the rise. Their legislative efforts are being characterized as a blatant attack on gay and lesbian groups, and in particular their asserted right to marry. Proponents of these bills adamantly deny such motives.

Where the truth lies is almost impossible to discern. What is discernable is that after years of Barack Obama, whom they consider at best a secular humanist who is hostile to the Judeo-Christian ethic, this potent voter base is once again fired up.

The issue will be, first, whether the business-backed establishment GOP can somehow gain the trust and support of evangelicals, who were once an essential element of Republican presidential victories; and second, to what degree, if any, evangelicals' current legislative efforts might inadvertently bolster Democratic-leaning turnout in '16.

The GOP is being thrown back to the 1980s, whether it or the rest of America likes it or not.