For both alarmed non-Christians and embarrassed moderate-to-progressive Christians, there were promising signs in 2014 that conservative Christian paranoia and determination to wage spiritual battles against “liberal secular culture” might finally be abating. Pope Francis has led the way in encouraging believers to look inward with self-criticism instead of outward with self-righteousness in encountering the world. As unlikely a voice as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore has lashed his co-religionists for aligning with political reactionaries in denying the need for racial progress. And even Bill O’Reilly appears to have declared victory in his annual Christian self-pity party, the War on Christmas, which implicitly compares the faithful to the persecuted saints and martyrs of the ages for having to suffer the torment of “Happy Holidays” greetings.
So can we, followers and non-followers of Jesus, hope this season of peace and joy will give way to a new year of civil discussion that is not overshadowed by the sound of drums from Christian soldiers marching to war? Don’t count on it. Even if the supply side of theocratic impulses in America is abating a bit, the demand side will boom in 2015 thanks to a large and noisy Republican presidential nominating fight in which Christian Right resources will be a fiercely contested prize.
At least four frequently-mentioned GOP presidential proto-candidates have deep and intimate Christian Right ties. There’s former Gov. Mike Huckabee, of course, a Southern Baptist minister whose 2008 campaign almost entirely relied on conservative evangelical voters. His successor as the winner of the Iowa Caucuses, Rick Santorum, is a Catholic traditionalist who also appealed on moral and grounds to conservative evangelicals, and on occasion hinted that mainline Protestantism had been captured by Satan. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has long enjoyed close relationships with crypto-dominionists and radical self-styled Christian Zionists. And fellow Texan Sen. Ted Cruz frequently deploys as his warm-up act his father Rafael Cruz, a fiery conservative evangelical minister who believes Christians must “take back society” from “the progressives” who are responsible for “the blood of 57 million babies…crying out to God, just like the blood of Abel cried out to God.” Christian Right activists would have every reason to treat all four of these gentlemen as beyond the need for vetting, so thoroughly have they incorporated the requisite world view.
But there are other candidates who can be expected to compete with these claims of Christian warriorhood. Gov. Bobby Jindal has beaten the “religious freedom” drum more loudly than just about any other public figure in the debate surrounding the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case, and his controversial school voucher program in Louisiana seems designed to shovel public money towards religious schools with a minimum of oversight. Gov. Mike Pence has been one of several proto-candidates cozying up to David Lane, a Christian Right impresario who is especially active in organizing clerical audiences for would-be presidents in Iowa. Gov. Scott Walker is a conservative evangelical who often speaks of carrying out his anti-union, pro-corporate agenda on instructions from the Almighty. Sen. Marco Rubio is (like Jindal) another traditionalist Catholic who likes to attend conservative evangelical churches, and has gone out of his way to embrace not only the Christian Right’s issue agenda but its more fundamental denial of church-state separation.
Rand Paul and his father have a longstanding connection to the openly theocratic U.S. Constitutional Party, and are especially close to Christian home-schoolers. Ben Carson was recently the keynote speaker at a fundraising event for The Family Leader, Iowa’s premier Christian Right group; he’s notorious for embracing comparisons of America to Nazi Germany, a particularly strong habit among antichoice activists. And even Establishment favorite Jeb Bush, lest we forget, was the politician who touched off the Terri Schiavo hysteria in 2003 by intervening in a family’s end-of-life decisions.
It is entirely possible that Christian Right activists will fatally split among different candidates, just as they did in 2008 and 2012 (George W. Bush was the last to unite the various tribes of conservative Christian political warriors, in 2000 and 2004). Corresponding splits among “Establishment” candidates, or the successful launching of a “crossover” candidacy (which Bush, Pence, Rubio or Walker might be able to pull off), could make that possibility matter less.
But there’s little risk of a sworn enemy of the Christian Right winning the nomination. Every “mentioned” GOP candidate for 2016 favors making abortions illegal again, and if there are any who dissent from the latter-day conservative litmus-test position defining “religious freedom” as justifying defiance of anti-discrimination laws, they have been very quiet about it.
And lest any candidate take them for granted, conservative evangelical voters proved their value once again in 2014 by turning out in wildly higher percentages than their share of the population.
So it’s pretty likely conservative Christian leaders will be making a less-than-joyful noise in the New Year, lashing their troops into a frenzy of fear at the prospect of another liberal president and the hope of reshaping the country according to the Gospel of the Day Before Yesterday. Secular folk will shake their heads in disbelief, and progressive Christians will pray: “Lord Have Mercy.”
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.