Articles of Faith: Republicans Court Social Conservatives — and Controversy

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With three weeks to go until the Ames straw poll in Iowa, the race is on to capture the hearts of social conservatives in the Republican party. A number of candidates are competing for the important voting bloc, but for all practical purposes, the field has already narrowed to Michele Bachmann and a still-undeclared candidate, Rick Perry.

Both politicians can legitimately claim to speak not only to the Christian Right, but from it as well. Both are already scheduled to speak this September at Liberty University, the school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. Bachmann, who earned her law degree at Oral Roberts University, is a darling of social conservatives for her unabashed opposition of everything from national service to gay rights, and for her background as a foster parent to 23 children. For his part, Perry is Bush 2.0, a Texas true believer who is hosting a national prayer gathering on Aug. 6. The event, he recently explained on Family Research Council president Tony Perkins’ radio show, is for “people who are Christ-lovin’ and realize our country has gotten off track.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit to block Perry’s event from taking place, an action that makes Perry even more of a hero to the Christian Right. “I think about those who talk about Christian faith as being intolerant,” the Texas governor told Perkins. “Isn’t it just the height of intolerance to say that we can’t gather together in public and pray to our God?” It’s not that simple, of course, as the event will feature only Christian speakers and is billed as an opportunity to “call upon Jesus.” But Perry’s aw-shucks, what-do-liberals-have-against-prayer response is perfectly pitched for his political audience.

But while “social conservative” is often used as a synonym for “evangelical,” both Perry and Bachmann will have to appeal to conservative Catholic primary voters as well. And on that front, both politicians have potential problems. As I’ve reported previously, one of Perry’s closest backers is San Antonio mega-church pastor John Hagee. Back in 2008, John McCain ended up disavowing Hagee’s endorsement over the pastor’s anti-Catholic statements, such as referring to the Catholic church as the “whore of Babylon.” When Hagee’s endorsement was originally announced, many conservative Catholics reacted with outrage, including Catholic gadfly and cable tv regular Bill Donohue who described Hagee as a “bigot” who “has waged an unrelenting war against the Catholic church.”

Several months later, Hagee and Donohue sat down at a meeting brokered by the former Bush Catholic advisor Deal Hudson, and Donohue emerged from the discussion convinced that the pastor’s anti-Catholicism was a thing of the past and declaring Hagee his “friend.” The swift and peaceful resolution was uncharacteristic for Donohue, who has never met an opportunity for confrontation he didn’t greet with a bear hug. But if it holds, Perry may escape the criticism from some Catholic quarters that dogged McCain.

Meanwhile, Bachmann has spent the past week avoiding questions about whether her former church, part of the conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, is anti-Catholic. Bachmann and her family attended the church for more than a decade before withdrawing their membership in June, six days before Bachmann declared her candidacy. Friends of the family told the New York Times that the Bachmanns have chosen to attend Eagle Brook, a Baptist mega-church that is closer to their new home. But some calculations by the incomparable Mark Silk reveal that the Lutheran church is actually closer to their house than any of the Eagle Brook locations.

As for the anti-Catholic charge, the WELS denomination has long held that “We identify the anti-Christ as the [Roman Catholic] papacy.” If you remember your European history, Lutherans and Catholics have always had rather significant doctrinal differences that led to a little thing called the Reformation. But the forthright statement of those differences by this denomination has caused problems for Bachmann since she first ran for Congress in 2006. At the time, she distanced herself from anti-Catholic views in a debate, saying, “It’s abhorrent, it’s religious bigotry. I love Catholics…and my church does not believe that the pope is the anti-Christ. That’s absolutely false.” Given that the charge is not absolutely false, Bachmann is now distancing herself from anti-Catholicism by switching denominations.

Bachmann is hardly the first politician to deal with controversy by disavowing a long-standing connection with a religious institution. In 2008, when inconvenient stories started to emerge about Sarah Palin’s church, the McCain-Palin campaign said the Alaskan vice presidential candidate was “not a Pentecostal,” despite the fact that she had attended an Assemblies of God church since childhood. Daniel Burke at Religious News Service recently reported that Dwight Eisenhower “buried his family’s roots as Jehovah’s Witnesses and presented himself as a Presbyterian when he ran for president in the 1950s.” And who could forget Barack Obama’s public break with Jeremiah Wright and his Chicago church during the 2008 primaries.

As Perry continues to gather support from conservative religious leaders and Bachmann weathers questions about her own beliefs, another presidential candidate favored by social conservatives has captured the title of No. 1 Islamaphobe in the GOP field. Herman Cain had already declared in March that he wouldn’t be comfortable appointing a Muslim to his cabinet. This week, he doubled-down, telling Fox News that local communities should be able to ban the construction of mosques, religion freedom be damned.

In the same vein, GOP Congressman Allen West (he of the “You are no Lady, Sir!” rejoinder) announced this week that he will hold a congressional briefing on the Muslim Brotherhood’s infiltration of America. The briefing will include testimony about “an unprecedented list of individual members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S., and the people and organizations with which they are associated.” No word yet on whether the ghost of Joseph McCarthy will attend. But it’s fair to say Republicans won’t be competing to capture Muslim American votes next fall.

Amy Sullivan is contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column rounding up the most important news at the intersection of religion and politics, appears on every Friday.