The Evangelical’s Dilemma: How Scott Walker’s Faith Is Frustrating The Christian Right

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

It’s no secret that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, like many GOP candidates vying to win the White House in 2016, likes to present himself as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Christian. He regularly tweets inspirational Bible verses from his official governor account, dismissing accusations from the Freedom From Religion Foundation that his posts violate the separation of church and state. He often cites faith as fueling his personal resolve, telling the New York Times, “My relationship with God drives every major decision in my life.” Even the name of his political action committee, Our American Revival, is a religious reference.

And when it comes to explaining his recent decision to run for president, Walker doesn’t hesitate to list his chief campaign advisor: the Almighty.

“This is God’s plan for me and I am humbled to be a candidate for President of the United States,” Walker wrote in a fundraising email the day he announced his candidacy.

Yet for all his prayerful ululating, Walker’s candidacy has been met with a surprising level of hesitancy — even skepticism — among the evangelical elite.

Tony Perkins, head of the right-wing advocacy group Family Research Council, suggested in February that Walker’s overtures to evangelicals were disingenuous, and said in May, “I think people are wondering, ‘Where does he stand?’” Penny Nance, president of the Christian group Concerned Women for America, expressed similar concerns to Politico, saying, “He cannot campaign in Iowa and South Carolina and not talk about the issues of life and marriage. And even if it appears that he’s not talking about it, he’s done.”

Walker has tried to assuage such fears, holding private meetings with high-profile evangelical pastors in May. But the odd distance between Walker and the leadership of the Christian Right popped up again this month, when he and at least three other candidates were invited to a forum organized by the political wing of the Southern Baptist Convention. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), both Roman Catholics, accepted. Walker, the only evangelical Christian who met the group’s requirements for invitation, declined.

So what’s behind Walker’s odd dance with his fellow evangelicals, and, more importantly, how will it influence this election season — especially given the high number of evangelical Republican voters in early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina?

Raised a religious moderate, only to abandon it during a campaign

Conservative suspicion of Walker is rooted partly in the governor’s atypical spiritual autobiography. He was raised in a deeply religious household, but his family didn’t rear him with the hardline faith popular among the leaders of today’s Religious Right.

Walker is a “PK,” or “preacher’s kid,” as his father — Rev. Llewellyn “Llew” Walker — is a minister in the American Baptist Churches USA, a relatively inclusive and theologically diverse brand of baptist that claims over a million members. The tradition is home to strong progressive and moderately evangelical wings, but has long been considered to be centrist in the broader spectrum of American Christianity.

Llew Walker pastored several churches throughout the governor’s childhood, including a stint in Plainfield, Iowa, where he served the town’s First Baptist Church. The pastor wasn’t keen on preaching politics while in the pulpit, but quickly joined the municipal council, where — with the exception of voting against a liquor license for a local tavern — he reportedly helped institute at least one progressive policy in the small town: He successfully lobbied for the construction of affordable housing units near the church.

Having a preacher for a parent left a mark on Walker, forming him as a person and as a public speaker. When Llew was struggling with depression while pastoring in Wisconsin, high-school-aged Scott Walker took up the pulpit to lend a hand, preaching in his father’s absence.

With such a powerful family connection, it’s no wonder Walker stuck with the American Baptist denomination when he moved to Wauwatosa, Wisconsin in the 1990s and joined Underwood Memorial Baptist Church. His parents also relocated to Wisconsin and joined the congregation, hoping to be closer to Walker and their grandchildren.

But theological winds began to shift for the soon-to-be governor in 2003, when Underwood hired dynamic female pastor and Harvard Divinity School graduate Rev. Jamie Washam to lead the church. Progressive and passionate, Washam quickly set about guiding the congregation in a more inclusive direction: By 2005, Washam was already marching against the Iraq War, and Underwood had become affiliated with Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a faith-based network of Baptist churches that welcome and affirm LGBT people. The step was bold, as well as highly public — after joining with the group, Underwood installed a small rainbow flag directly on its church sign.

The congregation largely embraced the changes, but for the politically ambitious Scott Walker and his wife Tonette, the dauntlessness of progressive faith may have been too much. Shortly after the church began accepting openly LGBT members, Walker — who was about four months into his campaign for governor at the time — left to join Meadowbrook Church, a large, nondenominational evangelical community about five minutes away.

Walker has dodged direct questions from reporters as to whether or not the church’s ideological shift pushed him to abandon the denomination of his childhood and his church of 12 years, insisting he left mainly to seek a more “family friendly” congregation for his growing children.

Church officials at Underwood Memorial Baptist Church did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on Walker’s time in the pews there. Some of his fellow worshippers, however, have openly questioned the timing of his departure.

“As soon as we put the flag on the sign, he was out of there,” one former Underwood parishioner told the New York Times.

Walker’s parents, on the other hand, still worship at Underwood to this day.

Embracing an evangelical identity, except when he doesn’t

Walker’s current worship community, Meadowbrook, fits solidly within mainstream evangelicalism. A church plant of the larger Elmbrook Church, Meadowbrook is part of a network of theologically conservative congregations in the area, and welcomes a hundred or two worshippers each week. Its belief statement is a litany of classic evangelical views: God is described using masculine pronouns, the Bible is believed to be the inerrant word of God, parishioners are encouraged to embrace a personal relationship with Jesus, and salvation is possible only through belief in Christ.

It also hits the right political notes for theological conservatives. Although the church isn’t active on reproductive justice issues, Meadowbrook’s pastor encouraged the congregation to support a ballot measure in 2006 banning same-sex marriage in the state. Rev. Washam, by contrast, publicly opposed it.

As Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University, told the Journal Sentinel earlier this year, it helps Walker “to be part of a large network of people who all speak the same language religiously.”

Yet if Walker’s new church is bolstering his faith and informing his policy positions, he has been slow to talk about it. Walker shot to fame for defeating unions in his state, but was often tight-lipped about same-sex marriage — an animating issue among many Christian conservatives. He argued his silence was an attempt to help shed the stigma that the GOP is the “party of no.”

“I don’t talk about [same-sex marriage] at all,” he told the Hill in 2013. “I don’t talk about anything but fiscal and economic issues in the state.”

Walker raised even more conservative eyebrows by appearing ambivalent on the issue of abortion, a classic sticking point for right-leaning people of faith. Although Gov. Walker singed legislation defunding Planned Parenthood in 2011 and forced several of the organization’s clinics to close, he responded to an abortion-related question from the Christian Science Monitor in 2013 by saying, “I don’t obsess with it.” Then, during final stretch of his 2014 reelection bid, Walker ran an ad in which described the decision to have an abortion “agonizing,” and said legislation he supported left “the final decision to a woman and her doctor.”

In both instances, Walker didn’t so much as mention his faith.

A different brand of professional evangelical?

Walker’s perceived back-and-forth on key conservative issues is likely a byproduct of governing a generally left-leaning state such as Wisconsin, where progressive policies remain popular. But he has been eager to list his conservative bona fides during his recent run for president, calling for widespread defunding of Planned Parenthood and signing into law in Wisconsin a 20-week abortion ban that includes no exceptions for rape or incest. Walker has also kept pace with other evangelical candidates by endorsing a constitutional amendment to allow states to make their own decision whether or not to ban same-sex marriage.

Still, he continues to operate in a slightly more complicated religious space than some of his evangelical counterparts. Walker has said that he supports a same-sex couple in his own family, and has been challenged on the issue by his sons.

Then again, Walker’s unusual hybrid of vocal faith and tempered relationships with evangelical leaders may be by design. In a lengthy analysis of his candidacy in Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner posits that Walker’s refusal to uniformly defer to the evangelical establishment could be an answer to the more aggressively religious campaigns of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. She argues that many Republican voters see their efforts as cheap pandering, and quotes faith leaders who would prefer that Walker “do nothing” to try to win their vote.

“Walker hits the right evangelical notes without overplaying his hand — and that’s exactly the way they want him to keep it,” she writes. She adds later, “Without calling much attention to it, Walker assures evangelicals that he emerges from the same subculture and speaks their language.”

If this really is Walker’s approach, it seems to be working — at least in the short term. Although he lags behind businessman Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and neurosurgeon Ben Carson in national polls, Walker is still ahead of more traditional evangelical candidates such as Cruz and Huckabee nationwide. He also bests both men in Real Clear Politics’ average of polls in the South Carolina and Iowa — the exact states Walker was warned he would lose if he didn’t make nice with the Religious Right.

ThinkProgress contacted Walker’s campaign for comment, but did not receive a response by press time.