Opinion

Biggest loser in South Carolina isn't Santorum. It's evangelical leadership.

Evangelical leaders endorsed Rick Santorum ahead of the South Carolina primary, but evangelical voters didn't listen – pushing Newt Gingrich to victory instead. This departure marks a dramatic shift in the movement – with far-reaching implications for American politics.

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    Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks during a night rally Jan. 21 in Charleston, S.C. Evangelical leaders endorsed Mr. Santorum as their candidate of choice ahead of Saturday's primary, but evangelical voters pushed Newt Gingrich to victory instead. This marks a shift in the traditional Christian right "voting bloc" – with broad implications for the movement's future in American politics.
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Last week, ahead of the South Carolina primary election, 114 evangelical leaders gathered in Texas to determine which GOP presidential candidate they would collectively endorse. The Christian right vanguards voted 85 to 29 to anoint Rick Santorum. As it turns out, their constituency wasn’t listening.

Two-thirds of voters in the South Carolina primary described themselves as Evangelical or born-again Christians according to exit polls. Yet 44 percent of Evangelicals voted for Newt Gingrich while Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum – the chosen evangelical candidate – nabbed 21 percent each.

Turns out that Evangelical heavyweights like former Focus on the Family president James Dobson, Gary Bauer of American Values, Tony Perkins of Family Research Council, and others no longer have the uniform sway over Christian voters en masse. This marks a dramatic shift in the movement – with far-reaching implications for American political contests to come.

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The evangelical movement emerged in the 1970s under the leadership of such visionaries as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and soon became an animating force in American political life. After registering millions of Christian voters, the movement was partially credited with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

[Editor's note: The original version of the piece misstated the year of Ronald Reagan's election.]

Evangelical Christian leaders continued to flex their political muscles in the 1990s, mobilizing voters, winning elections, and giving Bill Clinton hell at every turn. Conservative Christians maintained momentum through 2004 when they helped orchestrate George W. Bush’s re-election.

During President Bush’s second term, however, the tectonic plates of change began shifting. A new generation of Christians was coming of age that had less tolerance for partisan, polemical, and power-hungry expressions of faith. Influential Christians both young and old signed An Evangelical Manifesto in 2008, which repudiated attempts to politicize the faith. The Christian base in general was expanding, diversifying, and developing independence.

Worse still, perceptions of Christians among most Americans edged the movement to the brink of cultural irrelevance, while church attendance steadily declined.

In decades past, conservative Christians mobilized around only a handful of issues – abortion and gay marriage first among them. But these believers’ focuses seem to be broadening beyond a handful of social wedge issues to other priorities such as fixing America’s flailing economy. This is particularly true in a state like South Carolina where unemployment is well above the national average. The grassroots Christians of today seem determined to vote for the candidate who they like rather than following the advice of religious leaders.

As religious right leaders continued to engage in partisan political tactics, they have exceeded their core competencies. And as last Saturday illustrates, these leaders cannot motivate large numbers of voters.

“[Evangelicals] are tempted to think we can be kingmakers and powerbrokers, that we can deliver or withhold the support of a voting bloc,” writes David Neff, editor-in-chief of the evangelical publication, Christianity Today. “But if there is any lesson in the story of this year’s primary elections, it is this: evangelicals have not voted as a bloc and many are not following their leaders.”

South Carolina is about as Evangelical as states come, and Rick Santorum is about as perfect a match as gun-toting, grit-loving God-fearers could hope for. It says something about the state of evangelicalism when 65 percent of them would rather choose between a thrice-married “champion of family values” and questionably pro-life Mormon than the candidate anointed by the evangelical elites. Perhaps South Carolina has made clear what has been true for some time – that Christians are not monolithic and the American political process will no longer be significantly shaped by a handful of partisan religious leaders.

Jonathan Merritt (@jonathanmerritt) is author of “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He’s published more than 350 articles in outlets such as USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN.com.

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