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The 2012 presidential race will heat up this Saturday when Texas Gov. Rick Perry hosts “The Response,” an all-day stadium prayer rally to rescue the nation from it’s financial and moral morass.As we have previously written, Perry’s call to prayer has unified the various branches of the American evangelical movement under the banner of The Response. The result is a powerful coalition of well-known religious power brokers and emerging grassroots prayer networks that could launch Perry to the top of the GOP primary field.
Regardless of whether Perry decides to run (although it looks like he will), the underlying message of “The Response” is clear: The Religious Right is back and determined to have an impact on the 2012 Republican nomination.
TBI Politix talked to presidential historian Doug Wead, a former evangelical advisor to President George H.W. Bush, to find out more about where the Christian Right stands in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election. Check out what Wead had to say about evangelical politics, Rick Perry, and why he’s backing Ron Paul this time around.
1. How has evangelical political leadership evolved since the 2000 and 2004 elections? Has there been a decentralization of the conservative evangelical movement since the days of Rev. Jerry Falwell’s ‘Moral Majority’?
Wead: There never was a centralized [evangelical] leadership — that’s a media conception. The ‘Moral Majority’ never represented the evangelical movement by any statistical numbers, nor did [Pat Robertson’s] Christian Coalition. The ‘Moral Majority’ was a Jerry Falwell organisation, the Christian Coalition was a Pat Robertson organisation — it represented them. They would play to media stereotypes and try to portray that they represented a broad base of evangelicals, but it never did. In fact, even the National Association of Evangelicals, which at least on paper can claim to represent millions of evangelicals, was also a tight little community of people with their own politics and their own rules. It didn’t always truly represent evangelicals.
So the movement has never been very tight — it has been tight in a spontaneous, organic way, but not in an organised way.
Now there are more opinions, and evangelicals are a little more wary. The leadership is evolving as less naive, less tight, less provincial, less predictable — it’s all part of the growing up of the movement. It’s slow, but that process has begun. Some evangelicals have grown much more suspect of politicians who use language to try and win their favour.
2. What role did born-again Christians play in Sarah Palin’s 2008 political ascent?
Wead: Huge — it was everything. [John] McCain’s mistake [in 2008] was not taking care of evangelicals early enough. He started so late and so weak that he needed a miracle, and Palin was his miracle for a week or two. It was very shrewd. But the Republican Party has to appeal to evangelicals very early and they have to do it under the radar.
Evangelicals are offensive to people in the media, so associations with evangelicals will hurt a candidate. But the Democrats that get elected president also almost always have a successful outreach to evangelicals. Obama had a very effective outreach, called the Joshua Program.
So a Democrat doesn’t have a tough job winning a little slice of evangelicals. But if they don’t, then [evangelicals] can elect a Republican. The numbers are just too high — with 48% of the population claiming to be born-again, it’s the death knell to make them the enemy.
3. Do you think that the evangelical vote is up for grabs in the 2012 presidential campaign?
Wead: Yes, I do.
The thing about the evangelical vote is that more than other groups they tend to follow leadership. People will waste a lot of time trying to get their votes, but in the end they will fall in line with what their leaders decide. Some people may argue with me about that, but it is a very dominant trend in my experience. I think this has to do with faith — since they trust their leaders with their eternal salvation, it’s not a great step to trust them for advice on who to vote for.
Right now, the leadership is for Rick Perry. The reason it is up for grabs is that Rick Perry has not been vetted, and it is very late. As high as his polling numbers are and as strong as his support seems among evangelicals, this is extremely late for a candidate to jump in the race and expect to win.
4. What is the political significance of The Response?
Wead: I think it is an attempt by religious leaders and by Rick Perry to recapture the Reagan moment, when Reagan told evangelicals ‘You can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.’ That was a moment when Reagan captured the hearts of the evangelical movement — and they eventually went on to vote an incumbent out of office. It happened at a big event in Dallas, news of the event spread by word of mouth — so I think they are trying to recapture that moment.
On the part of evangelicals, The Response says ‘we still matter, we’re still kingmakers, we still have influence,’ and on the part of Rick Perry it’s ‘I’m your man.’
I think that it is going to be different this time. Perry is not Reagan. I don’t mean that to knock Perry, but Reagan represented an ideological movement that had tenure and deep roots; Perry is more of a politician, he doesn’t represent an ideological change.
5. In a recent blog post, you call Christian activist David Lane is a “mysterious, evangelical kingmaker.” Can you elaborate? How influential is Lane’s support for a potential Perry 2012 campaign?
Wead: Lane’s [Pastor Policy] briefings are extremely important because they involve large numbers of evangelical leaders from every branch of the evangelical movement, every type of evangelical leader.
He’s a great organiser. He’s been able to find the money to bring people together for these events. I say he’s mysterious because he sought no recognition for what he did, which was actually pretty remarkable. At a time when the evangelical movement was leaderless, he really brought them together.
There are lots of evangelical leaders, but he’s the one who brings them together. He has brought them together specifically for political discussions. In that sense, though he would deny it, he is the leader.
His support [for Perry] carries a lot of weight because he has brought everybody to Perry. He’s been looking for a candidate — for a while we thought it might be Gingrich, which I know is unusual. But what he is looking for really is a winner and he thinks Rick Perry is a winner.
I think he is mistaken — he is not infallible in his political judgment. It’s my personal opinion that it’s not too late for Rick Perry to make a big splash, but it is too late for him to win.
6. You recently signed on as a senior advisor to Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. Can you give us some insight into why Paul might appeal to evangelical voters?
Wead: Many people feel that electing almost anybody other than Perry, it’s 7-Up and Sprite — your choices are very similar, you are still going to have huge growth in spending. Ron Paul offers, for me, something different. You do have some people who are looking for a totally different paradigm and Ron Paul is the best way for them to express their contempt with what is going on. That transcends the religious argument.
You have today evangelicals who decided that the American Constitution, which guarantees rights for diverse groups, is actually the safest place for evangelicals to be right now. So there is a Constitutional movement developing. When I joined the Ron Paul campaign, I was shocked to find many evangelicals already there, who had already made the same journey that I have made intellectually and come to the same conclusion.