Paul Ryan and the Curious Case of the Missing Evangelicals

Paul Ryan and the Curious Case of the Missing Evangelicals August 21, 2012

We now have a presidential ticket without at least one candidate who is nominally Protestant. The Daily Caller‘s Matt K. Lewis saw this coming a couple weeks ago, and interviewed me about the prospect.

“I don’t think it [will] be particularly important in this election,” says  Kidd … “Evangelicals would be heartened by the selection of a conservative Catholic  running mate by Romney, just as many of them supported Rick  Santorum in the primaries … The Supreme Court, of course,  now includes no Protestants, and that has not generated much anxiety among  evangelicals — most evangelical voters care about issues more than  denominational affiliation.”

A ticket composed of a Mormon and Catholic would presumably have caused much greater consternation in times past, although one does puzzle at the example of Dwight Eisenhower, who grew up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and did not receive Protestant (Presbyterian) baptism until shortly after his inauguration as president in 1953.

In any case, there is a major upside to the largely positive — or at least silent — evangelical response to this no-Protestant ticket. It signals a turning away from the anti-Mormonism and anti-Catholicism of evangelicalism’s earlier generations, despite some muttering in the primaries about Mormonism being a cult.

Although evangelicals should continue to recognize the major theological differences separating them from Catholics and Mormons, they should happily cooperate with people of different religious traditions on issues of common concern. (As I wrote previously at Patheos during the Revolutionary era and early national period, the relatively small number of American evangelicals had to cooperate, partly because they could not possibly hope for political success by depending on appeals to evangelicals alone.)

I do, however, wonder about the curious lack of top Protestant or evangelical candidates and officeholders, even among Republicans, where you might expect to find more. Besides the Supreme Court and the Republican ticket, neither the Speaker of the House (John Boehner, Catholic) nor the House Majority Leader (Eric Cantor, Jewish) is a Protestant. (The top two Senate Republicans are Protestants, however.)

Perhaps this is just a statistical aberration — you don’t have to look back far to find counter-examples. From Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush, more evangelicals inhabited (or at least influenced) the White House in the period 1976-2008 than ever before in American history (I am roughly defining an evangelical as a Christian who says they’ve been born again).

But one does not have to succumb to “Palin derangement syndrome” to see that Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and their brand of Tea Party evangelicals have yet to find a national strategy to bolster evangelical electoral strength in the post-Bush years.

In the 2012 primaries, evangelical Tea Partiers eventually coalesced around Catholic Rick Santorum as the main alternative to Romney. The only serious evangelical contender to become the Republican vice-presidential nominee was Minnesota’s former governor Tim Pawlenty. Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio (despite his occasional visits to evangelical churches), and Ryan are Catholics. Rob Portman is a United Methodist with a striking fondness for the Shakers.

What does this anecdotal evidence of missing Protestants and evangelicals at the top levels of political leadership tell us? First, that American culture is more post-Protestant than ever, although this has not yet translated into out-and-out secularism of the kind you see in western Europe. As religious historian Grant Wacker noted in a recent USA Today article, what would really be stunning is a presidential ticket with an agnostic or atheist on it.

Still, the curious Protestant absence should also give evangelicals pause. For all the talk about the evangelical factor in American politics, evangelicals since 2004 (George W. Bush’s second presidential victory) have struggled to field and elect conservative Protestants on the national stage. In the past two Republican primaries, they failed to secure the nomination for a preferred candidate (such as Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Perry). Obviously, some evangelical/Tea Party candidates have performed better in statewide elections, such as Southern Baptist Ted Cruz’s recent surprise victory in the U.S. Senate primary in Texas.

As Michael Lindsay’s excellent book Faith in the Halls of Power made clear, evangelicals have entered many positions of authority in business, politics, and entertainment. But the 2012 election cycle suggests that evangelicals have not yet seized upon strategies that will continue placing evangelicals in the loftiest halls of power.

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