With Declining Evangelical Power, Only 2 Candidates Attend Southern Baptist Forum

CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher, FILE

On Tuesday, Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), will interview presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) in front of 13,000 evangelical pastors in Nashville, Tennessee, the first via satellite and the second in person.

On paper, the event seems like standard fare for a Republican primary, as it’s certainly not unusual for GOP candidates to court evangelical votes. But while evangelicals have a long history of mixing faith and politics, the seemingly innocuous Southern Baptist conference — which will only include appearances from two presidential candidates amid a field of almost 20 GOP hopefuls — might be indicative of something else: The decline of the Religious Right.

Granted, mingling with Southern Baptists in Nashville could be a practical campaign tactic for both Rubio and Bush, the latter of whom also delivered the convocation at the Christian-affiliated Liberty University earlier this year and is actively appealing to the growing Hispanic evangelical vote. Both candidates are Roman Catholics who are struggling to court evangelicals: A July Quinnipiac poll found that among likely Iowa caucus voters, Bush, Rubio, and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) claimed just 6 percent of “born again Christians,” which — while not terrible in a crowded field — still shows ample room for growth when compared to Ben Carson (9 percent), Ted Cruz (11 percent), Scott Walker (18 percent), and even Donald Trump (8 percent).

But even though Bush and Rubio’s involvement is probably a calculated political ploy, the ERLC event — which is itself part of the two-day “Send North America” Christian conference — is also notable for who it excludes. A press release for the conference stated that invitations were issued to GOP candidates polling at 10 percent or higher in the Real Clear Politics national average from May 1 to July 4. The ERLC didn’t respond to ThinkProgress’ request to clarify that description, but the statement implies that at least some candidates declined to attend — presumably including Wisconsin governor and proud evangelical Scott Walker, who has polled at more than 10 percent several times over the past few months. This also likely means that right-wing heroes Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) — both of whom are Southern Baptist — were not even invited, based on their polling numbers. Organizers acknowledged that Hillary Clinton, a proud Methodist, also declined to attend.

Whereas the political altar calls of the Religious Right used to attract a flood of confessing candidates, this year’s Southern Baptist event — which represents the largest Protestant denomination in the country — is triggering high-profile snubs in both directions, even among fellow faithful.

Meanwhile, Moore seems to be asking far less of today’s candidates than one might expect. In the ERLC’s statement announcing his interview with Bush and Rubio, he did not demand that the hopefuls preach about the sanctity of marriage or promise faith-based articulations of public policy if they make it to the White House. Instead, he focused mainly on the need to defend “religious liberty.”

“Evangelicals realize they can no longer consider themselves part of some silent majority, where our First Amendment freedoms are assumed and guaranteed,” Moore wrote. “Instead, evangelicals want to know which candidates offer a clear, coherent vision of religious liberty and have a plan to defend it when the very idea is contested in American politics.”

Moore’s uncharacteristically humble description of modern evangelicalism signals the beginning of a relatively new era in American politics: The Religious Right has lost its longstanding dominance of the Republican Party, and is now facing an increasingly awkward political landscape — one where they need (sometimes unlikely) political champions as much as candidates need their votes.

This trend has been building for some time. Evangelicals failed to produce a viable presidential candidate during the 2012 election, when conservative Christians turned out in lower numbers than in years past. State-level candidates such as Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri — who both touted right-wing Christian bona fides — also suffered massive defeats at the polls that year for faith-fueled gaffes about women and abortion. When evangelical megapastor Rick Warren tried to get then-GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama to attend an event at his church, something he’d successfully coordinated during the 2008 election, both candidates declined. Since then, conservative evangelicals have consistently lost fights over marriage equality, preaching passionately against homosexuality even as the rest of the country embraced — legally and culturally — same-sex marriage and equal rights for LGBT people.

The cascading series of losses took a toll on the political power of religious conservatives, who make up only small portion of younger voters — a group that overwhelmingly resists blending faith with politics in the first place. In response, some conservative Christians recently began calling for the group to recuse themselves from politics, arguing that it’s better to reject the system than be repeatedly disappointed on Election Day. Moore himself says as much in a new book, which reportedly asks evangelicals to abandon the culture wars “of red states and blue states, Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals.”

Others are less eager to leave the political game, but most are skeptical a candidate that fully represents their views could even win the presidency, much less enact their agenda after election.

“Evangelicals are always game to hit the polls, in other words, when the GOP needs to pull out a win: but that doesn’t necessarily mean Republicans will be invested in pushing Evangelical issues once they get into office, or that they’d have any success if they tried,” Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a religion analyst for The New Republic, wrote in March.

None of this means the obliteration of the Religious Right as a political force, of course. Moore’s reference to “religious liberty” is part of a growing trend among conservatives who want to retain the ability to, among other things, discriminate against LGBT people in hiring. Thus, courting the favor of the most likely GOP candidate — which was usually Jeb Bush until businessman Donald Trump’s recent surge — is the group’s best chance to get their issues heard. Moreover, it’s likely that candidates such as Scott Walker are skipping the ERLC event not because they don’t want to be affiliated with the group, but because they feel that they already have their support.

Nevertheless, the buzz around the Nashville gathering pales in comparison to similar meetings a decade or two ago, when conservative faith leaders were often seen as kingmakers who anoint the next GOP winner. This was especially true for Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush, who garnered so many endorsements and grassroots supporters from evangelicals in 2004 that some argued the religious groups were more organized and influential than Bush’s own campaign. Yet if Tuesday’s ERLC event is any indication, today’s evangelicals are simply a demographic to be courted — an important one, but only one among many. Practically speaking, this means that while the Religious Right isn’t going away anytime soon, its unchecked control over the Republican Party — and, by extension, American culture wars — could be coming to an end.

This post was updated to clarify that the candidate interviews constitute an ERLC event within the Send North America 2015 conference.