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