Evangelicals aim to strengthen their political influence

Evangelical leaders who are feeling more isolated in a Republican Party focused on fiscal issues rather than social debates are planning to assert themselves ahead of a free-for-all GOP nominating contest with more than a dozen contenders.

At church gatherings and political rallies across the South, pastors and some presidential candidates plot a return to culturally conservative messages that aim to push back against same-sex marriage, abortion rights legislation, the spread of legalized marijuana and other signs of what they see as creeping secularism.

They do so even at the risk of alienating parts of the electorate, including some younger and moderate voters who view national debates such as the one that has long raged over gay weddings as long in the rear-view mirror. But in interviews and at forums, many said it was worth the risk to pull the Republican Party toward the right.

“America is turning toward the left,” said Jessica Caspers, a resident of Thomaston, Ga., whose husband is a pastor at a local Baptist church. “And evangelicals, this time, want to find a candidate who really represents us.”

Several of the 15 Republican candidates for president are fiercely maneuvering to become the darling of the evangelicals, who play an outsized force in Georgia and other states that make up the March 1 “SEC primary” voting bloc. About one in four Americans identifies as an evangelical Protestant, but that number grows across much of the South.

Nearly 40 percent of Georgia residents are evangelicals, according to Pew Research Center surveys, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution polls show they overwhelmingly favored Republican candidates in 2014.

It’s why some of the most ardent conservatives, including neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and ex-Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum have leveraged combative rhetoric to capture the imaginations of evangelicals even as they try to prevent the bloc from splintering.

They are also trying to cut into the support of Donald Trump, the pugnacious casino mogul who has built a surprisingly solid lead among Christian conservatives.

Serving God or government?

Cruz and Huckabee journeyed recently to a rally at Rock Springs Church, an evangelical megachurch in Milner, Ga., about 50 miles south of Atlanta, to curry favor with thousands of conservatives who had traveled from all over the region for a fireworks show, a Charlie Daniels concert and face time with the candidates.

The theme of the evening, if there was one, was dissatisfaction with establishment Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush who have taken more moderate approaches on issues such as gay marriage and illegal immigration.

“I appreciate you standing against the Democrats,” the rally’s organizer, Benny Tate, said to thousands huddled on the rolling hills on the church’s campus. “But I really appreciate you standing against the Republican Party when you think they are wrong.”

Huckabee, a one-time Baptist preacher who won Georgia’s primary in 2008, predicted a protracted fight against the 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court (he called it the “extreme court” to scattered laughter) that struck down bans on same-sex weddings.

“Over the next few years I fully believe that people of faith, whether they be Christians, Jewish, whatever they may be, are going to be called upon, and already are, to determine, ‘Will you serve God or will you serve government?’ ” he said. “And I wonder, will we be as faithful to our faith and to our freedom as those men who signed that declaration 239 years ago?”

He’s followed that by supporting Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who became a hero to opponents of same-sex marriage when she was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses because she objected to gay weddings. Huckabee delighted conservative crowds by volunteering to spend years in jail to fight the “tyranny under people who think they can take our freedom and conscience away.”

Cruz, the son of a born-again Christian preacher, spoke of a brewing “awakening” to defend the values of conservatives. Like other Republicans, he talked wistfully of the millions of evangelicals who he said spurned Mitt Romney in 2012, and he vowed to fan the flames of evangelicals across the nation.

“It’s my hope that that marriage decision serves as a spark to start a fire that becomes a raging inferno and awakening that sweeps this country as the body of Christ rises up to defend the values that have built America into this great nation,” Cruz said.

The fierce competition has stoked fears of a rerun of the past two presidential campaigns, where candidates courting the evangelical vote split the field and left many disillusioned. Bart Tharpe, a GOP activist in Macon, Ga., who attended a recent evangelical rally, said he’s confident Christian conservatives have learned a lesson.

“I’ll vote for any one of them,” he said. “It’s better than any ungodly idiot the Democrats are running.”

Even Tate, the influential megapreacher who counts Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue among his flock, marveled at the crowd arrayed in a town that usually counts just 500 people.

“We are in Hooterville. The ZIP code is E-I-E-I-O,” he said, scanning the thousands picnicking in front of him. “And we’ve got two presidential candidates.”

Evangelicals aim to rebuild their base

They’ve got a lot of work ahead.

White evangelicals were once a singular force in the U.S., making up about one-quarter of the electorate and backing George W. Bush by a nearly 4-to-1 ratio in his 2004 re-election. There was glowing talk of a permanent political realignment driven by Christian conservatives.

But the bloc’s influence could be waning. Many Christian conservatives never warmed up the same way to John McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012, and GOP strategists have long lamented over millions of voters who were said to have stayed home three years ago rather than cast a ballot for a Mormon perceived by some as a moderate.

And Democrats will fight to keep their share of the evangelical vote. Democratic U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont made that much clear when he visited Liberty College, a leading evangelical school in Virginia, to seek “common ground” with students over shared biblical fundamentals.

Many evangelicals see the same-sex marriage decision as a chance to reignite their base. But there could be danger in fighting a decision that has divided Americans, with some polls showing a narrow majority of Americans supporting same-sex marriage.

“So the risk for Republican candidates who align themselves too closely with the resistance to same-sex marriage is that this issue could come back to bite them in the general election,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.

Some of the more than 13,000 Southern pastors and missionaries who packed a Nashville arena this summer were willing to take the gamble. They heard from leaders such as Al Mohler, who warned them that evangelicals need “fast thinking and fast talking” to prevent a stark cultural shift.

“Not voting is a vote. If you can vote, and you didn’t, then you just voted,” said Mohler, who heads the Kentucky-based Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “There’s no way out of the political engagement. We have to be engaged, and we have to be engaged quickly.”

That was enough to galvanize Shawn Andrews, a 25-year-old youth pastor from Robertsdale, Ala. He returned home with a new focus on polarizing issues he said he could sell to his flock of millennials.

“Abortion is wrong. Same-sex marriage is wrong,” he said. “And we feel we can correct these issues. No matter who wins, we’ll stay involved in political activism.”

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