We all know the outlines of the story. Alarmed by the increasing likelihood that Mitt Romney would top the GOP ticket for 2012, several conservative evangelical leaders — James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, and Gary Bauer, former president of the Family Research Council — hosted a meeting of the evangelical old guard at the home of Judge Paul Pressler in Texas. Before the meeting, invitees were asked by Wildmon whether, if the group coalesced around a particular candidate, they would be willing to put aside their individual preferences and support the candidate that emerged. Each of the remaining candidates had a surrogate who made his case. After several rounds of voting, the group voted 85-29 to support former Senator Rick Santorum.
All attendees were to refrain from commenting on the meeting for 24 hours afterward. Tony Perkins — whom I like, by the way — was designated as the group’s spokesperson. Let’s review what has happened since then:
- Predictably, the spin war for presidential campaigns could not wait 24 hours. Campaign surrogates and other attendees were leaking like sieves well before 24 hours had passed, trying to shape the way in which the meeting and its outcome were framed. Not exactly a sterling representation of Christian character.
- Perkins described the outcome of the meeting as an “endorsement” of Santorum. Whether he misspoke, or whether they had never clarified the right language to use, the Gingrich campaign swiftly objected, and Perkins was forced to walk back that language.
- Red State’s Erick Erickson, who attended (now he’s an evangelical leader?), slammed the Perry surrogate for being unprepared and the Romney camp for calling everyone bigots. Erickson (just trying to be helpful, of course) advised the media to write about the Texas conclave that “Romney will probably become the nominee…with even less good feelings between evangelicals and him than John McCain had.” Consistent with his behavior so far in this election cycle, this was again a terrible misrepresentation of what happened. There was an appeal to avoid the kind of anti-Mormonism or mean-spiritedness that was evident from the likes of Robert Jeffress at the Values Voters Summit, but Team Romney did not “accuse them [those in attendance] of being anti-Mormon bigots.” That said, one can hardly blame the Romney camp for being unenthused about a meeting whose implicit — but very clear — purpose was to rally behind someone not-Romney.
- David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, evangelicalism’s most storied publication, criticized the Texas gathering for “playing kingmaker and power-broker.” The implications here are pretty scathing: “When evangelicals are confined to a partisan kennel, it is easy to think we are exercising real power. In fact we are, to use the old Soviet phrase, serving as ‘useful idiots.’ Christianity Today founder Billy Graham discovered this had happened to him. Out of an abundance of enthusiasm and good will, he tried to aid Richard Nixon in his campaign. Later, when the Watergate transcripts revealed the true Nixon, Graham realized he had been used.”
- News leaks that Dobson, after praising Santorum’s wife to the high heavens (and she does sound wonderful), referred derisively to Calista Gingrich as “a woman who had been a man’s mistress for eight years.” While his statement is true, it’s hardly winsome to condemn a candidate’s wife for her sexual history, and it’s another example of how different camps are leaking details from the meeting to serve their own purposes.
- Worst of all (or maybe not), it’s not clear that the non-endorsement from the Texas gathering will really make much difference, as Gingrich, not Santorum, is the one who has closed on Romney since the meeting. It’s possible that the leaders in attendance (and not everyone in attendance was really a leader) have not yet fully mobilized their resources and their constituencies, or that the effect has not yet registered in polls. But so far, Santorum’s support in South Carolina has barely moved a blip.
In short, the meeting’s been a public relations nightmare for conservative evangelicals, and it’s not clear that it accomplished anything whatsoever. From the above, I take the following lessons:
- If you jump into the middle of a food-fight, you’re going to get slimed. What’s especially irritating about this whole story, for someone who cares about the reputation of conservative evangelicalism, as I do, is how predictable this was. Of course the campaigns are going to leak selectively and fight over what the meeting meant — and your rules and reputations will be collateral damage.
- The older generation of evangelical activists don’t have the influence they once did. As a former strong-willed child, and father to a strong-willed child, I have a lot of gratitude for the ministry of James Dobson. I also have a lot of respect for those who fight for the causes of life and family within our political structures. Those are critical things. But as several attendees noted, the crowd was quite old and gray. This is not because — as Erickson said — younger evangelical leaders have abandoned politics. It’s because (a) their approach to political and social change is different, and because (b) they’re less alarmed by the prospect of a Romney presidency (more on this below, #4). Many young evangelical thought-leaders are pursuing social change through cultural instead of political channels, and even those who work in political channels are seeking to move conversations rather than elect conservative saviors. Rather than choose a single “evangelical-approved” candidate, make the moral case to all candidates in all parties and move all the candidates toward your point of view. Move the whole darn conversation.
- The older generation of evangelical activists are victims of their own success. The truth is, the Dobson generation (and Robertson and Falwell and D. James Kennedy and…) did succeed in moving the conversation. The current crop of GOP candidates is testament to their influence. There is not a single pro-choice candidate; there is not a single candidate who favors gay-marriage (though some think it’s a state issue). Each of the candidates has attended Faith and Freedom Coalition events and spent many hours interacting with evangelicals, hearing their concerns, and sharing their views. This is a massive victory for the evangelical old guard, but they want to go further and choose the GOP nominee. They need to understand where their role as ministers and Christian educators stops, and where they could only move forward by becoming political organizers and forfeiting their religious authority.
- The younger generation of evangelical leaders are not feeling the same anti-Romney hysteria as their elders. Evangelicalism is a differentiated entity. Rick Santorum won the evangelical vote in Iowa (32% compared to Romney’s 14%) but Romney won the evangelical vote in New Hampshire (31% to 23%). Northeastern evangelicals are more inclined to support Romney. While I haven’t seen any statistical study of this, my experience suggests that younger evangelicals too are more inclined to support him, or less inclined to view his Mormonism as a problem. I know several young evangelical leaders who were invited to attend the Texas meeting, but declined because they supported Romney and felt no need to unite behind a non-Rom. Of the most ardent despisers of Romney (and I deal with many), I would say 3-to-1 are over the age of 50. Younger evangelicals are also less bothered by the prospect of a Mormon in the White House. They know more Mormons, they’ve interacted with Mormons as co-belligerents against abortion and gay marriage, and they appreciate Mormon family values.
Such, at least, are the lessons I take from the Texas meeting and the shambles it’s become afterward. I have great respect for many who attended. But I don’t think the meeting was a wise decision in the first place, and I think it represents a way of seizing political power that’s fraught with problems. Change the culture and make a prophetic case to the whole political structure; tell people why you prefer the candidate you do; but when you become a partisan political organizer, you forfeit a lot of the religious authority you possess. This is why I think it’s important to keep Christian political leaders, and Christian religious leaders, separate.