Editor's Note: This is the first in our Believers, Movers and Shakers series, which will publish original pieces from Christian leaders in the public square each month until the 2012 election.
A funny thing happened on the way to the 2012 presidential contest. The conventional wisdom that social issues would not matter, and that the evangelical constituency is a relic of a bygone era, has been turned on its head. The beltway set is relearning one of the most inconvenient and persistent truths of American politics: the enduring strength of the evangelical vote.
This outcome was not necessarily prefigured by events. Barack Obama was supposed to usher in a new era of religious voting patterns by appealing to evangelical voters on poverty, health care and climate change (excuse me, "creation care"). In May of 2008, the founder of Beliefnet predicted that Obama "has a real chance to win substantial evangelical support," since "evangelicals are in a period of de-alignment from the Republican Party."
That prediction didn't fare so well. John McCain won 73 percent of the evangelical vote, a higher share than the born-again George W. Bush in 2000. According to a survey for the Faith and Freedom Coalition conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, 32 percent of all voters in 2010 were Christian conservatives, and 72 percent of them voted Republican. Voters of faith helped the GOP gain 63 seats and control of the House, and helped elect new governors like John Kasich in Ohio, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and Nikki Haley in South Carolina.
The Tea Party, which has recast American politics by focusing on spending, turns out to be sweetened with a dollop of evangelical belief. The Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Tea Party voters are pro-family. Pew also found fiscal and social conservatives coming together, the old divisions blurred by their mutual opposition to Obama's statist agenda.
Michele Bachmann symbolizes this fusion of social and fiscal conservatism. A Tea Party favorite, Bachmann won the Ames straw poll and tops many Iowa polls. Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker found that she belongs to "a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even most Christians." In a GOP presidential debate broadcast on Fox News, she was even asked if she planned to submit to her husband if she were elected president.
Rick Perry launched his own bid after addressing an evangelical prayer rally in Houston. He has been tagged by critics for having an "Elmer Gantry" problem, which they seem to think is fatal but which actually helps to explain his broad appeal and his whale-like entry into the race. Perry has connected with evangelical voters much as George W. Bush did, and then some. Think of Mike Huckabee, only with money.
The notion that Bachmann, Perry or other candidates secretly harbor "dominionist" theology is a conspiracy theory largely confined to university faculty lounges and MSNBC studios. Returning domestic spending to pre-Obama levels, repealing Obamacare and opposing Roe are not without controversy, but they hardly represent an attempt to impose Biblical law upon an unwitting nation. Like the shock and awe that accompanied the media's discovery of videos of Sarah Palin speaking in churches in Alaska as governor, what some in the secular media find appalling is greeted by most voters with a shrug.
So it is that a presidential campaign that is largely about the economy is nevertheless deeply shaped by issues of faith and morality. The evangelical vote, which comprised an astonishing 44 percent of GOP presidential primary voters in 2008, is poised to play a larger role than ever. The media, which has been publishing the obituary of religious conservatives prematurely for a quarter century, will discover once again that social conservatives are here to stay. Their return from a long exile from civic engagement in the late 1970s was not a fad. Nor was their deep conviction that America needs moral and spiritual renewal to return it to its founding principles.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.