My Take: Santorum’s evangelical surge is about more than Christian Right
Rick Santorum speaking in Iowa this week.
January 3rd, 2012
10:23 AM ET

My Take: Santorum’s evangelical surge is about more than Christian Right

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.

Why are Iowa's evangelicals so politically powerful?

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Iowa • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (451 Responses)
  1. dav

    "appealing to the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation?" How many loops does one have to jump through to regard this as a mere "idea?" Probably the same ones you had to jump though to vote for someone who consistently works to heighten oppression and poverty. Trillions spent on poverty programs since the 40's and the best you can say is that it would have been much worse if we hadn't. Never once let your ego accept that maybe we're going about this in the wrong way, just throw more money at it. Of course you are against abortion, because it decreases poverty. Without all those welfare babies you wouldn't have a political party.

    January 14, 2012 at 5:06 am |
  2. TJ Parker

    Hmm, you forgot to mention that Santorum wants to start another war – unprovoked – and favors torture as an interrogation tool.
    How is Santorum a new kind of candidate? He's George W. Bush on steroids ... except not as smart.

    January 8, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  3. Terry McCracken

    " I want to Stand Up & Be Counted!"As a citizen of this Christian Nation, I ask only two things of my President, or my Vice President, or my Congressional Representative in 2012." A personal belief in Jesus Christ as Lord & Savior" & I'm sorry that I have to even ask this, it should have already been volunteered." A pledge, that half of Your salary will go to Help our Jobless Families, here in America!" (The high income that you get, with spending allowances & Free Healthcare is shameful! You should have been the first to, "tighten your belts" & lead by example!!) If You're not willing, then You don't deserve My Vote!!

    January 7, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  4. Bert in UT

    I feel sorry for all the Teavangelicals who voted for Santorum. Now he is being revealed as a "big-government Republican" and is going nowhere. So their choices in November will be Romney the not-a-christian, Obama the Muslim or stay home and pray. Suckstobeyou.

    January 7, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  5. H. B.

    I guess I have to give up. CNN "omits" posting my comments here, although they abide entirely by the rules and are not offensive (except to theocrats, I suppose).

    The last "omission" was the fourth. I guess nothing I can do will ever get my comments posted. I notice many abusive comments that DO get posted. Mine aren't remotely that nasty.

    Santorum's espousal of biblical law over our present laws is illegal. He should be removed from the slate.

    January 6, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  6. mmsja

    As we approach next week, here's a quote that is worth noting and following - see if you agree, and if you don't it'll maybe shake your view of the author....

    “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” An unjust law, however, “is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law,” and therefore has no binding power over human conscience.

    Martin Luther King (Letters from a Birmingham jail)

    January 6, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  7. Debra Martinez@ Marisol

    Yes My God.. The God of Abraham,Isaac, Jacob .. The God all of Isreal!! There only ONE God .
    He won't come to you but he will send his loyal sons to do on his behalF.... Have a great day and , I know Father, I should had gotten involved with these people cause they are full of attractioned with disputes.. So I really had a great time on rollercoaster ride!! So now, I shall leave you with this !! Its been a delight in knowing you!!!

    January 6, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  8. Debra Martinez@ Marisol

    Look here ! You pagen lover!! The only thing MOLDY here is YOU, which your eye are clouded and your Heart is polluted, and a MInd is has emptyness!! I am passing my way from you! so keep on collecting my words and they will never go un-notice!! For the blameless man is righteous that receives the PRIZE!!!!!!!

    January 6, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  9. Debra Martinez@ Marisol

    Yes that is correct and His Word is ALIVE so get over IT!! Stop with your thoughts thats are spoiled !

    January 6, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  10. Debra Martinez@ Marisol

    Marisol as far as try to get FRIENDS HERE!! I am not running for OFFICE!! !! Honey I have pleanty of Friends.. I might just ask ONE to make you a vist!! So please remember ME!! I am is sending on my BEHALF!!!!
    For I can't bless you ONLy my Father!! And we don't support your view, Even if I went to IRAN!!

    January 6, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  11. Debra Martinez@ Marisol

    This is for YOU MARISOL
    My god , O HONEY you spelled it wrong ... This how you should have spelled my god , like this ... "My God" with a capital Gl!! all your gods are all little!! and MY GOD is only ONE , so go out seeking what you had done..The Father Almighty will JUDGE YOU KINDLY!

    January 6, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Mirosal

      I spelled it right. Your 'god', like the countless others before it, were created by primitive man as a awy of explaining the natural world around them. All your little book did was to change the semantics of a "god". In the ancient world, everything had its god. Now, one god has everything. All you've done is taken the god of peanut butter, combined it with the god of chocolate, and now you call it Reese's. Same ingredients, new packaging. You think that YOUR way is the ONLY way to get to this 'heaven'. By saying that, you have condemned 80% of the world's people to eternal damnation. Only 20% are Christian. You're a minority. Does that mean that the other 80% are throw-aways? They don't matter? If this 'god' of yours made us, why throw away 80% of the product? That's not feasible. Even most of your 20% wouldn't make that final cut. Your god and its laws mean nothing. And your little babble .. oops I mean buy-bull .... sorry.. bible .. is NOT evidence of any kind. If it were, I could use it as such in a courtroom. To date, it has NEVER been allowed to be used as evidence in any case, civil or criminal... why is that? Hmm?? I answer to the laws of my land. I spent 21 years defending those laws in uniform. I also have an education, courtesy of the Jesuits. I know exactly what your book says, and I am not scared. Not in the least. Tell your god to come find me, and we'll hash it out.

      January 6, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Mirosal

      Oh .. and spell my screen name correctly, please. M-I-R-O-S-A-L. "Marisol" is a Spanish female name. I am neither Spanish (or latino) nor female.

      January 6, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  12. Debra Martinez

    There is No True Christian here NO matter what religion they speak! For a True and Wise Christain will have Known that!!
    That their Leader is Christ Jesus!! So, they will have not gone seekout higher then his OWN!!

    January 6, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • Mirosal

      Jesus is dead. Juat like your great-great-grandparents. They aren't going to come back, and neither is jesus.

      January 6, 2012 at 7:07 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.