The argument among born-again Christians over their influence in American politics will rage once again at Ralph Reed’s annual Faith & Freedom Coalition’s three-day moveable talkfest that gets under way at prime locations Thursday in Washington.
As it has been since Ronald Reagan brought out churchgoing first-time voters for Republicans, the fundamental message is that Christian fundamentalists still matter to GOP success at the polls.
Yet what will be in dispute among the conference’s rank and file is whether conservative religious voters failed to come out in full force last year for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney partly because of internal evangelical disputes over his Mormon faith or whether the candidate could lay legitimate claim to conservatism. Evangelical voters clearly didn’t come out in big numbers in 2008 for Republican nominee John McCain after he publicly denounced the Rev. Pat Robertson and other evangelical leaders and took policy positions often anathema to traditional conservatives, both economic and social.
Mr. Robertson will be honored for his work at the summit’s banquet Friday evening.
Also disputed, mostly in private, will be whether the evangelical movement, especially its younger members, is moving toward a libertarian toleration — but not approval — of homosexuality, cohabitation by unwed couples and other social issues.
“Exit polls in 2012 showed evangelicals were 27 percent of the vote, making them the largest voting bloc in the electorate, larger than the African-American and Hispanic vote combined,” said Mr. Reed, who in 1989 helped create Mr. Robertson’s Freedom Coalition and now heads the successor organization. “Romney won 78 percent of the evangelical vote, meaning he got more evangelical votes than George W. Bush.”
Over three days, the coalition’s Road to Majority Conference will give the microphone to prospective 2016 Republican presidential contenders: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Locations will include the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, the U.S. Capitol and the ballroom of the J.W. Marriott Hotel.
The potential candidates have not been shy about evidencing their deep religious convictions. They rarely miss an opportunity to address — and especially in Mr. Paul’s and Mr. Santorum’s case, mingle with — evangelicals.
Although Mr. Reed touts the size of the evangelical vote, others are skeptical.
“It’s clear those evangelical voters who turned out overwhelmingly supported Romney,” said Dave Carney, who ran the nomination campaigns last year of two deeply religious candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a charismatic Catholic, and Mr. Perry, a born-again Protestant. “What is also clear is the lack of their overall turnout depressed the Romney totals in key states.”
Republican media consultant Rex Elsass said Mr. Reed is correct about the numbers but “total turnout was lower, so getting a higher percentage of a lower turnout is a losing formula.”
Others see a profound but subtle transformation in the evangelical worldview.
“During the 1980s and ‘90s, faith voters had a large impact on GOP primaries,” said FreedomWorks Vice President Russ Walker. “While they remain an important constituency and make up an important segment of the Republican base, there is a transition of sorts occurring.”
Mr. Walker said the issues that drive Republicans to the polls today are largely fiscal and economic. “Privacy and civil liberty are becoming more prominent among Republicans, especially among young conservatives who primarily identify as libertarians,” he said.
“The libertarian wing of the Republican Party is growing its influence among traditional conservatives and even within the faith community,” he said.
Recent revelations of secret government surveillance programs targeting telephone and Internet users “are emphasizing the importance of civil liberties issues and uniting faith and libertarian voters.”
Some evangelical leaders say born-again Christians have a certain amount of natural congruence with some libertarian thought as expressed in many tea party groups and in religious libertarian-leaning conservatives such as Mr. Paul.
“All social conservatives are citizens who care about government, and hence are natural tea party adherents,” said Focus on the Family Senior Vice President Tom Minnery. “Just because one speaks against government debt doesn’t mean he lacks a motivating faith.”
“Conservatism has to be more than a ‘leave-me-alone coalition’ that describes much of libertarianism today,” said Mr. Minnery. “Conservatism has a core of moral principles that libertarians will always discover when they dig deeply into why they believe what they believe.”
“While the ‘faith movement’ has attenuated, the faith voter is still there,” said former Reagan White House official Donald J. Devine, a conservative Catholic. “Indeed, most libertarian-leaning conservative Republicans say religion is very important in their lives. Nonbelieving libertarians are either left-leaning, American Civil Liberties Union types who would never support the right or are a very small group leaning right for economic reasons.”