Why the Religious Right Can’t Seem to Get the Candidate It Wants

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Was it just a month ago that religious conservatives were busy trying to stir up concerns about Mormonism and rally evangelicals behind Rick Perry? At the time, it looked like Perry’s slide in the polls could be reversed and his debate performances improved. Since then, however, his support has cratered–and if Perry can come back from his latest squirm-o-rific moment, he should change his name to Lazurus.

If the whispers about Mitt Romney’s faith have faded, it’s not because conservative evangelicals suddenly feel ashamed about their qualms, but because they’re starting to realize that it’s a lost cause. They find themselves without a strong candidate to stand behind. And that’s remarkable. For three decades, the influence and power of the Religious Right within the GOP has been an article of faith. But if the movement is so powerful, why couldn’t it field a single viable candidate for a presidential election that was supposed to favor Republicans?

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Mike Huckabee was supposed to join Romney in the race for a second go-round, and this time evangelical leaders were going to throw their support behind him instead of splitting their endorsements among the field as they did in 2008. If Huckabee wouldn’t run, then maybe Congressman Mike Pence–a fan favorite at social conservative gatherings–could take his place.

But Huckabee and Pence both passed on the race. Michele Bachmann jumped in, and that was good–until it wasn’t. “She and Perry were supposed to be the evangelical candidates,” says Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “They’re not going anywhere.” Herman Cain caught fire for a few weeks, but now he seems intent on burning his campaign down to the ground.

Barring a come-from-way-behind Rick Santorum boomlet, that leaves Newt Gingrich as the last Anybody But Romney candidate to rise in the polls. Voters sometimes go for unconventional candidates, but they are unlikely to fall for a man whose campaign slogan seems to be: “Listen Up, Stupid People. Because I Am Very, Very Smart.”

In part, then, religious conservatives are left without a winning candidate to support because stronger competitors simply chose not to run. But that fact itself indicates the relative weakness of the Religious Right. Social conservatives comprise a significant percentage of the GOP primary electorate, particularly in early states like Iowa and South Carolina. The prospect of their unified support should have been tempting enough to persuade a candidate who pleases Religious Right leaders to enter the race. By the time they were able to find a candidate willing to run, however, it was too late in the campaign cycle for Perry to ever get his footing, even if he hadn’t also suffered from a habit of sabotaging his own cause.

But candidates also know that the Religious Right–not to mention the evangelical electorate–is too divided to be able to deliver unified support. To call the movement loosely organized would be generous, and it is populated by too many would-be kingmakers. In 2008, they scrambled to pragmatic choices: Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani, Paul Weyrich and Bob Jones III backed Romney, John Hagee and Jerry Falwell supported McCain, and Huckabee won the approval of conservatives like Don Wildmon and Tim LaHaye.

In addition, there is a serious but oft-overlooked theological and cultural division that runs through the Religious Right. Most people think of the movement as a co-production of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But while those two religious leaders did partner on some efforts, they had deep differences and kept largely to their own operations–Falwell with the Moral Majority and Robertson with the Christian Coalition. Falwell was a Baptist and a fundamentalist, highly skeptical of the charismatic Pentecostal tradition of Robertson. When Robertson ran for the GOP nomination in 1988, winning the Iowa caucuses, Falwell backed George H.W. Bush, with whom he had a long-standing relationship.

This election cycle’s version of the Robertson-Falwell split was between backers of Michele Bachmann (of the charismatic school) and Rick Perry (from more fundamentalist Baptist and Methodist roots). Even if one or both of the politicians had turned out to be stronger candidates, they would have had a hard time uniting conservative evangelicals behind them.

But perhaps the simplest answer to the question of why the Religious Right doesn’t have a viable candidate this year is that it has never been terribly influential in selecting the Republican nominee. Look at the Republican nominees since the rise of the Religious Right: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain. Reagan’s place in popular history as the candidate of the Religious Right is actually a fluke of history. Many evangelical Christians entered politics for the first time in 1976 to support the candidacy of Democrat (and fellow evangelical) Jimmy Carter. When they became disillusioned with Carter–and mobilized by Falwell and Co.–they supported the Republican nominee in 1980. But the Religious Right didn’t play much of a role during that year’s primaries, and if it had, a divorced, non-church-going former actor would not have been the first choice of social conservatives.

Nor were George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, or John McCain much beloved by religious conservatives. Again, Pat Robertson won Iowa in 1988 over the Episcopalian Bush. Pat Buchanan mounted a challenge to Bush in 1992, and was the choice of many conservative religious leaders in 1996 over Bob Dole. Even George W. Bush was embraced by religious conservatives only after preferred candidates Gary Bauer and John Ashcroft barely cracked single digits in the polls.

Every time, as Cromartie reminded me, “Evangelicals find ways and reasons to say why they would vote for the nominee–even John McCain.” And they will again this year. Already, many of the evangelical leaders I’ve talked with speak of Romney’s nomination as an inevitability and are looking to focus evangelical attention on beating Obama. Still, they have to wonder why their supposedly-powerful cultural and religious movement never gets the candidate it wants.

Amy Sullivan is a 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 on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on TIME.com every Friday.