The myopia of some in the commentariat, including key politicians, was on full display over the weekend as President Obama’s decision to announce his support for same sex marriage was analyzed on all the talk shows and in the press.
Cong. Barney Frank appeared on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” The congressman said that he did not think the president’s decision would change any minds, that those for whom opposition to gay marriage is a decisive issue would already be opposed to Obama and those for whom support for gay marriage is critical would already be supporting him. True enough. But, the issue may not be decisive in changing minds yet still be significant in motivating legs. Come the end of October, I suspect that some conservative preachers will not be shy about taking to their pulpits and urging their congregations to use their forthcoming vote to build a bulwark against same sex marriage. Those who might be inclined to sit out the election because they have reservations about Romney’s Mormonism will be encouraged to set that concern aside in the interest of beating back same sex marriage. Conversely, I suspect there are some conservative African-American voters who would otherwise support Obama but might be inclined to stay at home on election day.
On Saturday, Gov. Mitt Romney went to Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and now the largest Christian university in the country. In his commencement address, Romney re-stated his belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. The line got the most sustained applause of any in his speech. Otherwise, the GOP nominee largely stayed away from any red meat social issues. He mentioned the cause of religious liberty. He referred to a Brookings study on the relationship of family to poverty, and the fact that Sen. Rick Santorum has pointed him to that study. But, he punted on the chance to articulate a well thought out, and detailed, analysis of why and how his presidency would enflesh a conservative vision that is coherent with the attitudes and beliefs of the conservative, white evangelical base of the party.
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Just as importantly, Romney seemed like a fish out of water at Liberty. No one ever accused Jerry Falwell of being a “well-oiled weathervane.” Everything about Romney, from his history of shifting positions on issues to his manner of speech to the obvious priority he gives to economic issues – he never worked for the National Right-to-Life Committee, after all, he worked at Bain Capital – everything makes him an uncomfortable fit for the fire-breathers on the right. Yes, he seems like a decent man, a family man, but so does Obama. The question for evangelical voters is if someone who cannot even talk the talk will be able to walk the walk if elected, but Obama’s announcement at least gives those voters who question Romney the chance to say – he couldn’t be worse.
At Politico, Ginger Gibson’s article on reaction to Romney’s speech came under the headline “Evangelicals: Mitt Romney hit right note.” The first person quoted was Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, of whom it could be fairly said that politics has been his principal vocation for a long time. What do you expect him to say? Now that the election is a binary choice, and after he and other successfully got Romney to insert a reference to same sex marriage into his speech, Perkins is obviously going to be all-in on the project of defeating Obama. Next up was Richard Land who allowed that he had not seen the speech, but that he agreed with its tone and content: “I would have acknowledged the difference in theology and not try to win the argument that we all believe in the same God because we don’t,” Land said. “We have many of the same values and a similar worldview when it comes to marriage and it comes to life and it comes to Israel.” For those who doubt the chasm between Mormons and evangelicals, read that first line again, the part about not believing in the same God. Unsurprisingly, Politico’s reporter did not follow up on that point.
It is odd to me to see the long-time leaders of evangelical political engagement being so quick to embrace someone who does not, in their eyes, believe in the same God they do. At some point, the evangelical base of the GOP has to ask itself what it has gotten for its fealty to the GOP. When Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority, he said that the group had accomplished all they had set out to accomplish when founded in 1979. This was self-evidently not the case. Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land. A constitutional amendment permitting prayer in the public schools still could not get out of Congress. There was no nationwide crackdown on pornography. Falwell succeeded in changing the face of Christianity in the public square, and he succeeded in organizing and galvanizing evangelical voters and pointing them towards the Republican Party. But, it remains an open question to my mind why evangelicals should be so excited about a party that in 2008 and now again in 2012 rejected the preferred candidate of the religious right, choosing instead someone who so obviously is not motivated by the issues that motivate them. If the Democrats were running towards the center, rather than cultivating their base, the differences between Romney and the evangelical base might be brought into greater relief, but the Democrats are not running such a campaign.
Religion matters in America and it will play a critical role in this year’s elections to be sure, not only because of the issue of same-sex marriage, but differently than it otherwise would if Obama has said nothing on the topic. I just wish the media was better equipped to analyze the role of religion in public life. I will venture a prediction. The morning after the election, the press will be asking themselves quizzically about the unexpectedly large turnout for Romney in northwest Ohio, where the Bible Belt crosses into southwestern Michigan’s Bible Belt. Ditto the surprisingly lower turnout among African-Americans in North Carolina. It will be curious to see how the polling shakes out in the next couple weeks in key states like Wisconsin and Florida and Colorado. Romney may not have done much to enamor himself to evangelicals at Liberty last weekend – there may not be much he can do given his personality and record. But, it might not matter because the people Congressman Frank don’t talk to are talking differently than the way he assumes.