January 3rd, 2012
10:23 AM ET
Editor's Note: Chris LaTondresse is the Founder & CEO of Recovering Evangelical, a nationwide movement of next-generation evangelicals, post-evangelicals and those outside the church who still like Jesus, and author of the forthcoming "Recovering Evangelical." Follow him on Twitter @latondresse.
By Chris LaTondresse, Special to CNN
Rick Santorum’s surge in the polls in the days before the Iowa caucuses has been interpreted by some as evidence of continued relevance and staying power of the Religious Right.
I disagree. I believe it signals the end of the Religious Right as we know it.
As a younger generation evangelical who voted for George W. Bush twice but who supported Barack Obama in 2008, the story of my political evolution offers clues for understanding the current presidential race and the changing face of the evangelical movement in America.
I grew up in a conservative evangelical home, the son of missionary parents in Russia. When my family returned to the United States so I could attend high school, I threw myself into sharing my faith and promoting conservative causes. By the time the 2000 election rolled around, the first I was old enough to vote in, I had become a poster child for the Religious Right.
I’d often wear my George W. Bush tee shirt with Bible in hand. But not all things stay the same.
Like many of my peers, I eventually became disillusioned with a version of Christianity that had seemingly lost its soul: too politicized, too associated with just one party, and too unconcerned with, irrelevant to, and even on the wrong side of the biggest issues facing the world in the 21st century.
As a result, the past decade has seen a precipitous decline in young evangelical identification with the Republican Party. My own story follows this trajectory.
My generation of evangelicals is just as pro-life as our parents' generation (some studies say we’re more so), but for us, any serious conversation about “life” has to extend beyond polarized, protracted and hyper-politicized debates about abortion.
We believe “pro-life” is more than a bumper-sticker slogan; it’s an ethic rooted in the biblical idea that all human beings are created in the image of God, and are, therefore, of immeasurable and equal worth in the eyes of their Creator.
Though we believe that 3,000 abortions a day in America are exactly 3,000 too many, we are just as concerned about the 20,000 children who die every day worldwide because of hunger, lack of clean drinking water and preventable disease. We also view human trafficking and exploitive labor practices as fundamental violations of people’s God-given rights and dignity.
And when it comes to “family values,” we’re weary of battles to “protect” marriage from gay couples, when so many young evangelicals have grown up in broken homes, witnessing our parents divorce and remarry at rates just as high as in the non-evangelical world (more than 33% of marriages among born-again Christians end in divorce, the same as in the general population).
In response, we believe in building strong marriages with our spouses and children as we start our own families, but wonder what this has to do with fighting against equal protection for gay couples.
So when young evangelicals see Republicans ripping pages out of the political playbooks of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right, it’s more likely to induce eye rolling than shouts of “amen.”
The worst offenders in the Republican primary? Look no further than Rick Perry’s commercial promising to "end Obama’s war on religion", or Michele Bachmann’s speech at Liberty University appealing to the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.
Perry virtually launched his campaign with a large prayer gathering, while Bachmann claimed last summer’s earthquake outside Washington was God’s attempt to send a message to Washington politicians.
Perhaps more than any other candidates, Perry and Bachman have staked their campaigns on winning social conservative voters. In spite of their early successes and willingness to wear their religion on their sleeves, however, both have plummeted in the Iowa polls.
This could be one of the most important “religion and politics" storylines of 2012. In the end, it hasn’t been the GOP’s most strident culture warriors or shameless religious panderers who have finally endeared themselves to Iowa’s social conservative caucus-goers, or who give my generation reason to take a second look at conservative candidates in spite of our flight from the GOP.
Instead, the story is Rick Santorum.
Of course, there’s no questioning Santorum’s social conservative bona fides. Throughout his career he has been at the vanguard of conservative battles against abortion and gay marriage. But that’s only half the story.
More than any other Republican candidate (and even more than some Democrats), Santorum speaks openly and passionately about his concern for poor and vulnerable people in the U.S. and around the world. These commitments are firmly rooted his Catholic faith.
As Senator, Santorum was one of President Bush’s key Republican allies in securing congressional funding for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Bush’s signature initiative aimed at combating HIV/AIDS in Africa. At the most recent CNN Republican primary debate, Santorum was one of the few candidates to defend the U.S. foreign aid budget, leading to a nod of approval from the ONE Campaign.
Earlier, Santorum came out against Herman Cain’s “999” plan because it would shift the tax burden to low income Americans and eliminate the earned income tax credit.
Santorum’s Iowa surge echoes Mike Huckabee’s in 2008. The two have much in common. Both have bucked their party’s conventional wisdom on winning the evangelical vote, offering a more compassionate approach to immigration (Huckabee) and making the case that poverty is a moral values and family values issue (Huckabee and Santorum).
Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa victory and Santorum’s surge suggest that, in spite of the dominant stereotypes about evangelicals, they value religious authenticity more than rhetoric and care about more issues than gay-marriage and abortion.
Those in the mainstream media who ignore these trends, or who simply place conservatives like Huckabee and Santorum in the traditional Religious Right frame, are missing a big story about the Republican Party, the evangelical movement in America, and my generation’s response to both.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chris LaTondresse.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.