Why Christians Still Don’t Dominate the GOP

The religious right doesn’t have a successful candidate running for president this year, and Amy Sullivan says this isn’t really anything new: of the four GOP presidential candidates since the religious right’s ascendance in the 80s, only one (George W. Bush) has really been friendly toward their cause. Why? Because, she says, although solid backing from the religious right would be a powerful force, that never happens:

Candidates also know that the Religious Right–not to mention the evangelical electorate–is too divided to be able to deliver unified support….In addition, there is a serious but oft-overlooked theological and cultural division that runs through the Religious Right. Most people think of the movement as a co-production of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But while those two religious leaders did partner on some efforts, they had deep differences and kept largely to their own operations–Falwell with the Moral Majority and Robertson with the Christian Coalition. Falwell was a Baptist and a fundamentalist, highly skeptical of the charismatic Pentecostal tradition of Robertson. When Robertson ran for the GOP nomination in 1988, winning the Iowa caucuses, Falwell backed George H.W. Bush, with whom he had a long-standing relationship.

This election cycle’s version of the Robertson-Falwell split was between backers of Michele Bachmann (of the charismatic school) and Rick Perry (from more fundamentalist Baptist and Methodist roots). Even if one or both of the politicians had turned out to be stronger candidates, they would have had a hard time uniting conservative evangelicals behind them.

To outsiders, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama probably seemed pretty much interchangeable in 2008. But they provided plenty of heat anyway thanks more to tribal divisions in the liberal movement than to serious policy differences. Likewise, Bachmann and Perry might seem two peas in a pod to those of us who don’t understand the tribal divisions within the Christian Right. But they’re there anyway.