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. Matt

    They just don't have any dirt on this guy yet. He will fall by the wayside just like everyone who isn't Romney.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • sector7

      Romney = Obama. What difference do you see? Both are for undeclared war, bailing out Wall Street, mandated healthcare, and letting the Fed be.

      January 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  2. JohnQuest

    geraldh, are you saying we should accept and abide by "Natural Law"? Or is this just convenient when you think it agrees with what you already believe?

    January 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  3. Get Real

    I don't using the terms "surge" and "Santorum" is wise.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • ricktwit santorum... America's favorite frothy one

      At least not in the same sentence. It sounds too much like a biological function to me.

      January 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  4. chip

    A topic strangely absent from an article so focused on life issues is war. You have no pro-life credibility whatsoever if you're for ending abortion and poverty, but support sending young men and women to die overseas in order to spread Western civilization and Christianity (which utterly fails every time).

    January 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • LouAZ

      Real popular Church song – Onward Christian Soldiers. You betcha !

      January 3, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  5. NS

    Yes, Sector 7, and in the same vein, how are you pro-life, yet want to cut funding that will support, feed, and educate disadvantaged children. It amazes me that folks are pro-life until the baby is actually born, then it becomes another drain on the government.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • HellBent

      That's because the movement is only pro-life in name. It's actually just pro-fetus.

      January 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  6. Randy

    And let's not forget that Santorum co-authored the defense of marriage legislation. I wrote him and urged him to vote against it and he wrote back and told me how wrong I was. He's no better than Perry or Bachmann.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • geraldh

      On what basis are u right and he wrong? Natural Law says you are wrong.

      January 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • AHHH

      What natural law would that be, gerald? The one made up by the authors of your book, or actual nature. Because nature would say you're wrong.

      January 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • ricktwit santorum... America's favorite frothy one

      What the hell does 'natural law' mean? ... Redneck.

      January 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  7. sector7

    How can you be pro-life and pro-war at the same time? Why are you not concerned about the innocent lives destroyed by our undeclared wars of aggression?

    January 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • GASocaler

      Probably because he values life and hates war, but thinks it can be necessary at times to defend the lives of the already born via a war. "pro-life and pro-war", I think people are rarely pro-war, but when you are threatened you need to stand your ground and stupidly enough it means war at times. Not always the right move, but you have to be willing to fight for your country, we fought for this country and we'll have to keep fighting for this way of life it seems.

      January 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  8. rlshaffer

    Rick Santorum is a lier, he lied about living in a school district and having the school district pay for his kids internet schooling while renting the house out and living in DC. Santorum has more in common with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad then he has with any of the other presidential candidates.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  9. Reality

    Only for the "newbies":

    Only for the "newbies":

    Why the Christian Right no longer matters in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country "ain't" going to help a "pro-life" presidential candidate, i.e Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Newton Leroy Gingrich, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the "Immoral Majority" rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The "Immoral Majority" you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million "Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers" of aborted womb-babies" whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million "IM" voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for "pro-life" JM.

    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the "Stupid Majority"?)

    (The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.)

    January 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  10. NS

    I am a PA resident I will tell you that Santorum is a bona fide crazy which is why he lost his bid for re-election in PA. He is also dishonest, though living in VA he claimed a residence in Pa to obtain funds for home schooling his kids. He does not stand a chance, if he becomes a serious contender, he will not be able to withstand the scrutiny of a presidential candidate.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • CS

      As a fellow Pennsylvanian, I agree 100%! It's scary seeing this man supported as he is. He is arrogant, and is very self-centered. Don't believe everything he says. Actions speak louder . . . as they say!

      January 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  11. BoldGeorge

    Sin is sin whether political, religious or personal. Christian politicians (if there are any left) should not support any person, group, agenda or movement that promotes a sinful lifestyle, because quite frankly every sinful lifestyle leads to things not beneficial to society (crime, violence, scams, breakdown of the family, etc.). On the other hand, they shouldn't pick & choose to support anyone or anything just to satisfy their own agendas, especially financially motivated, which is the biggest reason why anyone seeks out power.

    Now, if we all followed God's Holy standards for living, which are basically the Ten Commandments, we wouldn't be having this issue where each group of people wants to have representation no matter how safe or unsafe their agendas are on society. Now, since we cannot fully (or maybe at all) adhere and stick to Godly standards, this is when we need help, a savior and a redeemer who can rescue us from our own sins. Let's face it, we have immensely offended God y living our own ways in sin and unbelief (especially unbelief). We need to acknowledge that and turn to His Son, Jesus Christ for redemption. This is the only way to enter the Kingdom of God. That's true religion, relying on Christ's death and resurrection for our salvation. Every other religion that makes the claim of "self-effort" or self-worthiness is false religion.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Sir

      If we followed gods word to the T we would be killing people left and right... or are you picking and choosing too?

      January 3, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • sck

      Can you offer me any good reason to believe any part of this mumbo jumbo?

      January 3, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • rick

      Offended God? What pretentious tripe. Not at all unusual for you, George

      January 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Bob

      Hey, WimpyGeorgie, don't forget also to obey your sicko Christian god's commandment to slaughter and burn a sheep today to make a nice smell for your big nasty fairy in the sky, or god will torture you in hell forever. And yes, Jesus said the OT laws still apply, so don't try to slither out that way.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Be free of religion in 2012.

      January 3, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • rick

      What exactly is "political sin", Georgie?

      January 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Nancy

      Now would that be the 10 commandments from exodus 20:2-17 or would it be the totally different list from Exodus 34:14-26? Perhaps all of us would be better off if we actually knew what the bible holds....

      January 14, 2012 at 6:54 am |
  12. Milton

    Forgive my proselytizing here, but the author made the statement that divorce rates among evangelicals are the same as the general population. There is one demographic with a statistically lower divorce rate than evangelicals-atheists. They are also statistically less likely to commit a crime or end up in prison than evangelicals. If you are looking for a group with sound family values, American atheists are a good group to consider.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  13. 333

    Being from PA – Santorium will do anyone no favors, that is why he was voted out. The people of PA rejected his policies.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • CS

      Again, Agreed from a fellow Pennsylvanian!

      January 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  14. Survey0r1

    Santorum wants to increase military spending, has said that we should keep our troops in Iraq (forever, I guess) and openly talks about bombing Iran. We don't need another republican chicken hawk in the White House. While I appreciate his concern for the poor, I cannot agree with his apparent need to spill the blood of our own military along with percieved enemies.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  15. DoNotWorry

    Christians have never been known for thinking. Rick Santorum is just more disastrous Republican philosophy to suppress humans and glorify corporations. Does anyone else notice that if corporations are not serving us they have no right to exist? We need a business model that is more in alignment with democracy and less aligned with oligarchy.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Michael

      Interesting to me how you assume that evangicals don't think, implying that we either are dumb or uneducated. Stereotyping much?

      Not to mention that a lot of smart, intelligent people who invented things that you enjoy today called themselves Christians. Most of the country's founding fathers were christian. Next time you go to the hospital, check out the fact that most of them are christian and catholic hospitals.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • HellBent

      "Most of the country's founding fathers were christian."

      Really? like who?

      January 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  16. Loren

    Regardless of your view's on Santorum, the author offers us hope that Evangelicals are beginning to think beyond the narrow confines of strict Bible interpretations and understand the values that underlie the message of Jesus in the new Testament. While I would label myself a conservative, I find the knee jerk responses of the Republican candidates to be pandering for votes, and any candidate that presents a thoughtful response to national and global issues wil at least get a hearing from me. Bachmann and Perry represent the worst of what our politicians offer and learning more about the other remaining Republican candidates can only be a good thing.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Patrick

      If Evangelicals had the ability to think rationally they wouldn’t be Evangelicals.

      January 3, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • The Objective Observer

      FYI, the definition of being to think rationally per dictionary.com is "to form conclusions, judgments, or inferences from facts or premises." Your statement clearly shows that your "rational" thought is based off of the premise that "All evangelicals are irrational and always act as such". While we could discuss if there is any truth behind this premise or your conclusion, it is much simpler to just say that your statement is still rational thought (regardless of the validility of the truth of your premise).

      Thus, the fact that evangelicals are making their decision to vote for a candidate based on a political issue or religious belief shows that they are actually thinking "rationality".

      Whether you agree or disagree with the evangelicals' conclusions or the validility of their premises (I am sure that there are people who either completely agree or vehemently disagree with your underlying premise), it would be better if all parties would recognize that rationality and morality are not wholly owned by one side or the other.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Patrick

      @ The Objective Observer

      World English Dictionary

      — adj
      1. using reason or logic in thinking out a problem
      . in accordance with the principles of logic or reason; reasonable

      World English Dictionary

      1. strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp without proof or evidence
      2. a specific system of religious beliefs: the Jewish faith
      3. Christianity trust in God and in his actions and promises
      4. a conviction of the truth of certain doctrines of religion, esp when this is not based on reason

      Like i said. Nice try though.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • The Objective Observer

      Note: The original definition provided was for "Reason" (when acting as a verb) from dictionary.com. As seen in the definition of "rational" above, its own definition is dependent on the definition of "reason" to determine what is or is not rational. Thus, "Reason" was the root of the definition and provided above.

      January 3, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  17. xab

    The words "compassionate" and "evangelical" never belong in the same sentence unless it's an SAT section on antonyms.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • DoNotWorry

      Evangelicals are extremists, the majority of which behaved extremely bad before they were born again. Still behave poorly in their new format.

      January 3, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  18. B-man

    "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."

    Shouldn't you be about seven times more concerned (3K vs 20K)? A woman's right's versus the rights of the unborn has been debated for decades. Children dying of preventable conditions is pretty cut and dry. How about you take that Bush shirt off, drop the Bible and help those 20,000...like more than a few people I know do.

    January 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Michael

      The concern for the 20,000 is a valid concern, however does not downplay or nullify the concern for the 3,000. The lives of the 3,000 is just as equal as the lives of the 20,000. The truth is we should be concerned with both.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  19. Sir

    The writer forgets that as a senator he was VOTED OUT. Santorum is a wack job that has no business running anything, muchless a country.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  20. sck

    This article challenged my thinking regarding Rick Santorum, but I also think it completely misses the boat. Rick Santorum surged in the Iowa polls because he paid Bob Vander Plaats a million dollars for his endorsement. That is all. To create some kind of narrative of how Santorum's surge in Iowa is connected to the compassion of evangelicals is quite the reach.

    January 3, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
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