Christian right comes apart

The splintering of prominent Christian conservatives over the Republican presidential contenders reflects a schism — between the dogma of God, guns and gays and the desire to beat Hillary Clinton.

Months of disagreement within this important GOP voting bloc culminated this week in a flurry of endorsements:

Televangelist Pat Robertson is backing Rudy Giuliani. Conservative Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas is supporting fellow Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich is going for Mitt Romney.

All the candidates are flawed in the eyes of the Christian right, which is why some evangelical leaders are holding out and might favor a third-party candidate.

“You’ve got a wide-open primary, and you have various people who are ideologically acceptable — not perfect, but ideologically acceptable,” Brownback said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.

“If they’re acceptable and can win, that’s better than losing,” Brownback said, speaking by telephone on a campaign swing through Iowa with McCain. “I think you’re seeing a more pragmatic expression taking place.”

For his part, Robertson said he worries not about electability but about terrorists. Also, he feels reassured that Giuliani would appoint Supreme Court justices who view abortion from a conservative stance.

“To me, the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists,” Robertson said.

“I don’t think evangelicals have coalesced around any candidate,” he said Wednesday in Washington, with Giuliani at his side. “I just believe that I needed to make a statement, and I am speaking for myself, that … Rudy Giuliani is, without question, an acceptable candidate.”

There is very little any politician can do about abortion without a major shift in the federal judiciary, Robertson said, and Giuliani has promised to appoint judges in the mold of Chief Justice John Roberts and Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia.

Not everyone will take a favorable view of Robertson’s endorsement. While his television show, “The 700 Club,” draws an estimated one million viewers daily, many evangelicals have distanced themselves from him. He drew criticism shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for saying they happened because Americans had insulted God and lost the protection of heaven by allowing abortion and “rampant Internet pornography.”

This is not the first time evangelicals have split. In 1996, they were divided for months between former Sen. Bob Dole and conservative pundit Pat Buchanan. Christian conservatives rallied late in the process around Buchanan, but Dole became the nominee and later lost to Bill Clinton.

If evangelicals don’t rally behind a single Giuliani rival, that could help the former New York mayor, who is the GOP front-runner in national polls.

Among voters describing themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, 24 percent have said they would vote for former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and 20 percent for Giuliani, according to Associated Press-Ipsos polls. Some 22 percent didn’t have a favorite candidate.

As for Giuliani, “he’s working relentlessly to try and curry favor with conservatives,” said GOP consultant Greg Mueller, who noted that Giuliani made a special trip to Washington last month to ask Brownback for support. “He’s trying to find common ground, because he knows he’s got vulnerabilities.”

Evangelicals don’t seem to feel all that good about any of their choices.

Not only does Giuliani back abortion rights, the former New York mayor has been married three times and has had frosty relations with his children.

Evangelicals still have bad blood with McCain, who has feuded for years with them and in 2000 called Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance.”

And there is mistrust of Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, both because he has changed his mind on issues like abortion and because of his Mormon faith.

Other candidates are trying to take advantage of these flaws; Thompson began running TV ads in Iowa this week promoting his conservative voting record. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, reminds voters he is a die-hard social conservative.

Today, discord within the movement may run deeper than in the 1990s. The Christian right is maturing and has a new generation of leaders interested in issues beyond abortion and gay marriage, such as the environment and Darfur violence.

For example, pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren invited Sen. Barack Obama to speak at an AIDS summit at his mega-church last year, despite Obama’s support for abortion rights.

“Part of this may very well be generational change,” said John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

“The Christian right has been around for about 30 years,” Green said. “Its founders are long in the tooth — Falwell passed away; Robertson is in his 70s. There is a new generation of leaders coming up behind them that see things differently.”

Brownback said he’s been caught up in the generational discord.

“There is a divide within the movement on topics like the environment and, to some degree, immigration,” said Brownback, who has endured criticism for supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “I’ve felt the buffeting from both sides.”

He predicted that in the coming weeks, candidates will start talking about issues important to the new generation of evangelical leaders, such as poverty. Differences are not always bad, he said.

“I think it’s actually a good thing; I think it broadens the movement,” he said. “That probably is a more realistic picture of the faith, too. It’s more faith-oriented, not less.”


Libby Quaid covers the 2008 presidential race for The Associated Press.