Remember that “game-changing” endorsement of Rick Santorum by a group of evangelical leaders desperate to deny the Republican nomination to Mitt Romney? As Brian reports, there wasn’t really that much of a consensus in Texas. And it certainly didn’t make it to South Carolina, where Romney, Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry all paraded before a gathering convened by Ralph Reed’s “Faith and Freedom Coalition” just hours before the latest debate. All had their fans in the crowd, and Gingrich seemed to have more, or at least more vocal, backers, than Santorum.
“We are here today because we say unapologetically and unequivocally that there cannot be true freedom without faith in almighty God,” announced the disgraced-and-rebounding Reed, who led the Christian Coalition to prominence in the 1990s and launched the Faith & Freedom coalition in 2009 as a voter turnout machine for conservative evangelicals. He claims that he is going to register 2 million new voters on his way to compiling a database of 27 million voters who will be contacted over and over up and through Election Day. “If you thought we turned out in 2010, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” he warned Democratic leaders. Reed said “in 2012 we’re going to stand up and be counted and we’re going to say that people with faith in God aren’t what’s wrong with America, they’re what’s right with America and we need more of them engaged and more of them involved.”
The audience may not have been united on a candidate, but the candidates were unanimous in their avowed devotion to the Religious Right’s anti-abortion, anti-gay agenda, and their promises to fight “secularism” and the Obama administration’s alleged love affair with European-style “socialism” and its supposed “war on religion.” Also on the list: promises to repeal “Obamacare,” appoint right-wing justices to the Supreme Court, and shrink government. Reed promised that a Republican Congress and president would “dramatically slash” the corporate tax rate and take the capital gains tax to zero.
Rick Perry, whose once-mighty support has virtually evaporated in recent months, promised to set the audience on fire. His rambling remarks – punctuated with fist-pumping exclamations like “God and country!” – were well received, but South Carolina doesn’t seem likely to resurrect his candidacy.
The Supreme Court
Several candidates and their backers talked about the importance of the next president’s ability to appoint Supreme Court justices. Jay Sekulow, head of the Religious Right legal group American Center for Law & Justice, is one of Romney’s most prominent Religious Right backers. Sekulow talked about counting to five when he prepares Supreme Court cases, and said he was confident that with a President Romney making appointments in the mold of Justices Roberts and Alito, “I’m not going to have to worry about my math skills.” Reed, who introduced Gingrich, cited Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito as the kind of justices he was looking forward to – and not someone like Sotomayor. The Obama administration’s Justice Department also came in for sharp criticism, with Reed saying that Attorney General Eric Holder needs to “go back to where he came from.”
Pursuit of Happiness: The Gay Exception
One candidate after another cited the Declaration of Independence’s reference to the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” -- and then went on to call for a constitutional amendment that would prevent any state from allowing same-sex couples to get married. Romney said he would defend the Defense of Marriage Act and called for a constitutional amendment on marriage. Santorum said government based on the principles of strong faith and strong families was needed to constrain bad behavior and immoral activity. Perry dropped his voice to a dramatic whisper to assure gay people that “I love you regardless of what you’ve done. I hate your sin, but I love you.”
Threats to “Religious Liberty”
Many speakers argued that Christians in America are besieged by rampaging secularists. Romney said President Obama had put America on a path to being “more and more of a secular nation.” Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC) asserted, “The greatest minority under assault today are Christians – no doubt about it.” Rick Perry decried liberals in Congress and on the courts who he said wanted to “whitewash the public square of all spiritual references” and “sanitize from our history books our Judeo-Christian roots.” “If I am president of the United States, I will not allow them to do it! I will welcome people of faith to the public arena!” said Perry. “This is our country, ladies and gentlemen. This is our time. And it is time for people of faith to take this country back!” Romney and Reed promised that 2012 would bring more than political victory; it will bring spiritual awakening and renewal to America.
Ron Paul’s Biblical Economics
Journalist Adele Stan has reported on Ron Paul’s ties to Christian Reconstructionists and their religious view of limited government. Paul cited the Bible to support his monetary policies, saying “The Bible says we’re supposed to have honest currency and we’re not supposed to print the money.” He also cited Biblical stories from Isaiah and Elijah about the importance of the “remnant” – the small number of people who could be counted on to hear the word of God. The portrayal of conservative Christians as the righteous remnant is a popular theme at Religious Right gatherings.
Romney v (Gingrich v Santorum)
The current story of the GOP primary seems to be whether Santorum or Gingrich can rally enough conservatives who distrust Romney to wrest the nomination away from him. On one South Carolina radio station, Gingrich and Santorum ads ran back to back on Monday, each making the “electability” case. Santorum and Gingrich both attacked Romney’s ability to challenge “Obamacare,” and each used their remarks to argue that they could best carry the banner of unapologetic conservatism. Santorum bragged that he opposed the Wall Street bailouts while Romney, Gingrich, and Perry supported them. He claimed that he was the only one whose economic plan was grounded in building strong families. Gingrich pledged that he would challenge Obama to seven 3-hour Lincoln-Douglas-style debates, even offering to let Obama use a teleprompter (those jokes never go out of style at GOP gatherings), saying, “I think I can tell the truth without notes better than he can lie with a teleprompter.” Gingrich’s brashness was mirrored in the comments of Rep. Trent Franks, who once called President Obama an “enemy of humanity,” told the Faith & Freedom crowd that in a debate with President Obama, Gingrich “will eat Mr. Obama’s cookies and all accoutrements thereto.”
Appropriating a Sanitized MLK
Several speakers noted that the Faith & Freedom rally and GOP debate were taking place on Martin Luther King Day. Romney expressed admiration for King, who he referred to as “a great man.” But King’s Poor People’s Campaign and demand for government help in finding people jobs would not have won any praise from Romney or others at this event. Neither would Jesus’ teaching that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Building on the backlash against Gingrich and Perry’s criticism of Romney’s record as a “vulture capitalist,” Romney denounced “class warfare” and charged that Obama wants to create an “entitlement society.” Obama, he said, wants to replace ambition with envy, and “poison the American spirit by replacing a sense of unity with a sense of class warfare.” According to Romney, believing “one nation under God” means not noticing economic inequality. Others took the same line. Santorum, who says it’s un-American to even talk about a “middle class,” said Obama “wants to rule us” and thinks he can win by “dividing America up.” He said that Obama is destroying the incentive to create wealth.
In his eagerness to rally the Founding Fathers to his side, Romney mangled history in a way that called attention to the importance of MLK Day being more about learning and less about empty platitudes. According to Romney, the Founders’ choice of words about the unalienable right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence indicated that they meant to create an opportunity society. “This would be a nation where people would pursue happiness according to their dreams,” said Romney. “We would not be limited by the circumstances of our birth, we would not be limited by our race or gender…” Well, Mr. Romney, we’re closer to that ideal, thanks to the work of Martin Luther King and countless others, but the founders were quite willing to limit people’s opportunities based on race and gender. And they weren’t the last.