Does Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich's Rise Signal the End of Evangelical Influence in 2012?

Less than a decade ago, it seemed as though evangelical Christians dominated the political landscape of the United States. Regular prayer meetings were held in the oval office, the reasoning behind many governmental decisions was unambiguously based in Christian theology, a government agency was created to specifically support faith-based charities, and the president openly consulted with evangelical leaders. A 2004 Pew exit poll revealed that 27% of voters identified “moral values” as the issue that most influenced their choice of presidential candidate, more than any other issue (even terrorism). The movement that had begun with Falwell’s “Moral Majority” in the 1980s reached its pinnacle as conservative Republicans (many espousing evangelical beliefs) occupied the presidency, House and Senate from 2002-2006.

Times have changed. The same exit polls showed that only 10% of 2008 voters ranked moral values at the top of their list, representing the largest decline of all issues. President Obama, while a self-identifying Christian, has been much less ostentatious in his religious practice, even to the point of eschewing the use of the word “Christmas” in his White House holiday card. True, Rick Warren was a speaker at the president’s inauguration, and Obama has invoked God in several speeches, but many people on both sides of the aisle see such actions as little more than platitudes from an otherwise secular president.

While evangelicals can be found in both parties, they are far more likely to be associated with the Republicans. Why, then, are Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich at the head of the Republican pack? Romney, a Mormon with moderate social stances (seasonally adjusted to the election campaign, of course) is running neck-and-neck with Newt Gingrich, a man who cheated on and divorced two wives while they were convalescing from life-threatening illnesses. Remember, this is the same party that impeached Clinton for essentially having an affair, and demanded the resignations of Democratic politicians like Elliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner over sins that most Americans would agree pale in comparison to those of Gingrich. Confoundingly, the favorite for Evangelical Christianitians, ultra-conservative and Catholic Rick Santorum, is struggling to keep his head above water. Moral issues are less relevant to voters, and it seems as though evangelicals are no longer the dominant voice of the Republican Party. Are evangelicals gone from the political scene for good?

Probably not. While it might seem like evangelical interests have faded away, they’ve more likely just taken a back seat to the more salient economic issues. Exit polls showed that 50% of 2008 voters rated the economy as their number one concern, more than any other issue. Had Maslow constructed a hierarchy of political interests, the economy would probably be close to the base: People are understandably less concerned about gay marriage and abortion when they are struggling to pay their mortgages and feed their families. This is readily aparent when one notices that the most visible movement in the Republican party in recent years has been the more economically-minded, less moralistic Tea Party.

Some have attributed the decline of evangelical influence to the rising number of non-religious people in the United States or to a broader disillusionment of evangelical voters with the political process; this is likely not the case. Evangelical Christianity was born in America during the great awakening, and it will probably not fade from prominence anytime soon. Evangelical voters, love them or hate them, are tenaciously dedicated to their ideals, and will be back in the spotlight with a bill to teach creationism in schools or ban abortion as soon as the nation's collective focus shifts away from our teetering economy.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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