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. Seth

    I simply do not understand how this writer can rightly denigrate Perry and Bachmann as pandering demagogues while supporting Santorum as a true evangelical. How can the writer believe that he and his fellow evangelicals should worry less about whether gays can marry or not and more about keeping their own traditional marriage in tact – 33% divorce rate – yet claim Santorum shows well-placed compassion? I think this article is very well written, but I just don't understand how Santorum is the answer for young, modern evangelicals.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • The Objective Observer

      While the author may be in support of Santorum, he is purely using Santorum's swing in the polls as a contrast to Bachmann and Perry's previous religious rhetoric to support his argument that younger evangelicals are more concerned about global social issues (clean water, world hunger, AIDS in Africa, etc.) than the old 'traditional' religious issues of abortion and gay marriage.

      January 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  2. Ratsafrats

    IOWA game show has changed from WHO'S THE MOST CONSERVATIVE to WHO'S THE MOST CHRISTIAN. It's embarrassing and I don't even live there.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  3. Recovering Republican

    Watching the GOP is like watching a Zombie movie where more and more zombies are made, and anything not zombie is destroyed. However, unlike zombies, the GOP does not seek brains of any sort. They just multiple and destroy, feeding on the innocent and weak.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • DoNotWorry

      hahahahaha this is so accurate it is funny and sad. Signed... former Republican.

      January 3, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  4. P.G

    Frothy Rick hasn't much of a chance.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  5. ThatGuy


    January 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • ThatWhiteGuy


      January 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  6. ThatGuy


    January 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • ಠ_ಠ


      January 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  7. Anomic Office Drone

    I was on board with what Chris LaTondresse was saying until he got to that bit about Santorum. Regardless of his support of the poor in other countries, he seems to oppose helping the poor in any significant way in this country. In a less ridiculous field of candidates, Rick Santorum would be the worst candidate. We're talking about a guy who tries to blame molestation in the Catholic church or American liberalism. Don't believe that he's hilariously out of touch with reality? Google his stance on Iran for a good example.

    Rick Santorum is just another neocon clown.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  8. Giovanni

    If you want to really help poor people around the world, if you care about mankind in general, solving the problem of hunger, raising the wellfare of all of us that are not just the ultra rich, then you should go in the opposite direction of supporting ANY republican candidate. Liberals and conservative should work together to solve these issues and find similarities among themselves. Support science, knowledge, technology instead of military spending (war is the cause of a lot of famine around the world), helping and understanding people instead of suppressing them. Another party maybe would be needed to find an agenda that could be agreed by people that care about the world (liberal and conservative alike) but for the moment I don't see how any republican candidate can help solving this country and even less humankind problems.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  9. Steve

    Duke One: did you type "oops" right after you typed "PERRY 2012!!!"?

    January 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  10. FauxNews

    Sorry, but I don't think he has much of a chance unless he changes his name.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  11. Tom

    Wow! Another "compassionate conservative" like your pal, W! You voted for him TWICE and then voted for Obama? And now you speak of Santorum? Where do YOU stand in 2012? Oh and your whole generation, you seem to speak for? Vote Obama and maybe, just maybe, your God will look kindly upon you! And even forgive you for your votes in 2000 and 2004!

    January 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  12. nooneknows

    Santorum is a gay bigot and that alone should put him firmly out of contention.
    If he said blacks should be able to marry, there would be an uproar; this is no different.

    Religion should have no place in politics, right-wing, left-wing or no-wing. It's a silly delusion; get over it.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • nooneknows

      ... if he said blacks should NOT...

      January 3, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  13. Colin

    Evangelicals are increasingly irrelevant. They get artifical attention during the Republican Primary, but they are like a big, dumb troll on a bridge and once the Republican candidate has passed (s)he forgets them.

    There are two good reasons for this. First, young Christians are increasingly turning away from the supernatural nonsesnse of religion (immortality, mind reading, sky-gods, talking snakes etc.) and no longer buy into the core morality of the evangelicals on important issues like gay rights and $exual mores.

    Ad good riddance to the simpletons!

    January 3, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  14. Corey

    A surge of Santorum? Eeeeeeew!

    January 3, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  15. bristoltwit palin... America's favorite dancing cow

    I wonder if Mr. Frothy One would like to borrow my buttplug?

    January 3, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  16. Niel

    My question to you.

    Have you asked for forgiveness for your sin of voting for Bush the second time?

    If you feel that was not a sin then I do not believe you.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  17. Rich

    As for Rick Santorum, he will continue to tear down your freedom. His voting record supports this totally.

    Voted YES on loosening restrictions on cell phone wiretapping
    Voted NO on preserving habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees. (Sep 2006)
    Voted NO on requiring CIA reports on detainees & interrogation methods. (Sep 2006)
    Voted YES on reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act. (Mar 2006)
    Voted YES on extending the PATRIOT Act's wiretap provision
    and Santorum will continue the Corporate wellfare system where big business gets an unfair advantage against start up companies. His voting record supports this also.

    Voted YES on retaining reduced taxes on capital gains & dividends. (Feb 2006)
    Voted YES on extending the tax cuts on capital gains and dividends. (Nov 2005)

    And Santorum will continue corrupting our congress with more money. His voting record supports this also.

    Voted YES on allowing some lobbyist gifts to Congress
    Voted NO on banning campaign donations from unions & corporations
    Voted NO on banning more types of Congressional gifts less

    January 3, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Max Powers

      When you go and use logic and facts like that, it just ruins the blog for everyone. We're talking about supernatural magic @#$% here.

      January 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Sadly, most don't care what his voting record is – they only care if he done gots Jeebus in his heart.

      January 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  18. David

    Reason #1 to discount what this nitwit author has to say: "I’d often wear my George W. Bush tee shirt with Bible in hand. But not all things stay the same."

    #2?: 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.

    Nice smoke and mirrors. If little Ricky has another side beside trying to legislate his version of "morality" and his moronic obsession with gays and his anti-gay hysteria- We've yet to see it.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • The Objective Observer

      FYI, just wanted to let you know that your comment of "If little Ricky has another side beside trying to legislate his version of "morality" and his moronic obsession with gays and his anti-gay hysteria-" feeds the author's argument. If young evangelicals were concerned about regulating "morality" instead of global social issues then they would all be voting for Perry. However, this is obviously not the case.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  19. Duke One

    Santorum does not have the executive gubernatorial experience needed to be the anti Romney candidate. He also does not have the money or organization to go beyond Iowa. PERRY 2012 !!!

    January 3, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • tallulah13

      He's still running?

      January 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  20. Linda

    Santorum is simply the next installment of the anyone but Romney crowd. Iowa won't decide who the nominee is.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
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