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. Whammybar

    If anyone thought the black community turned out at the polls for Obama watch the Gay community turn out this time against all of these Republicans. You can't pray them away from the voting booth!

    January 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Patrick

      The question is will black voters turn out in relevant numbers now that Obama has disappointed them? Historically speaking..no.

      January 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  2. BillnTed

    It'll be interesting to see tonights results.I wonder which "anyonebutRomney" candidate will take it home. It wont be Huntsman either (unfortunately) he's a Mormon as well.

    Although the people of this country elected a person of colour to the office of President the prejudice has manifest itself in the GOP who refuse to help him be successful. If Barack Obama was rendered ineffectual, then what hope does an Asian, Muslim, Mormon, Latino or Female president have of success?

    January 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Correlation does not imply causation.
      The GOP would have done the same thing to any Dem, given the situation.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  3. DDanny1

    Just the thought of Iowans being diverse enough to be considered a barometer of the American people is beyond ridiculous. The candidate themselves say they are just trying to get a good finish in Iowa so they can move on the the next primary state. The problem they run into is they have to "out conservative" the other candidates and when they do well not only are they in the spotlight, but so is the things they said to get there. A lot of which doesn't play well in some of the states with the largest populations, of which two of the top three are considered liberal.
    It almost guarantees a candidate who probably couldn't win a national election will get an advantage over those who could.
    As for Santorum, the only reason he has any chance of moving to the front of the pack is he hasn't been there and had to face the scrutiny that goes with it. Romney has been fortunate that he hasn't broken out to a substantial lead. When people take a closer look at what he did as a corporate raider and understand the strategy the use the most by far is 1.Devalue, 2,Buy below market, 3. cut costs while emptying the till, 4. borrow every dime they can and put it in their pocket 5. Inflate value and find a brokerage firm that will help unload the hollowed out husk to their unsuspecting rank and file clients

    January 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  4. buckybadger

    You can have your conservative evangelical views. Just don't be cramming them down mine and everyone's throat. They talk against big government than pass their religious views on how to live your life. Sorry I would rather my government put sanctions on BP to keep our environment safe than tell me how to live.

    January 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  5. sck

    This piece is more self-flattery than anything else. Santorum surged because he paid Bob Vander Plaats a million dollars to endorse him. Nothing more, nothing less.

    January 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  6. Julius

    Santorum surge.. that sounds gross.

    January 3, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Donny

      Look wearily upon any human being who ever put on a George W. Bush tee shirt. Then look very wearily upon that person giving positive lip service to another evangelical candidate. See what I'm sayin'? Meaning, completely ignore this writer who tells of his disgust of the religious right then falls in love with its poster child.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  7. Mike

    Everyone be sure to google "santorum." Everyone loves a good surge of santorum!

    January 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Ad Nominem


      January 3, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  8. Alger Dave

    Interesting take on the Santorum surge. I'd agree that 'new' evangelicals are more than just a one or two issue voter. I feel that same way, but would be a bit more conservative than the writer in my views. I've consistently voted Republican even while they pandered to the wealthier parts of our nation (I'm not wealthy). Hopefully Santorum is the real deal – an honest Republican who isn't afraid to let us know where he stands instead of pandering to the many special interests. A 'true' evangelical candidate would be honest about his positions, open to reasonable ideas from all sides and would definitely care deeply about the oppressed (in our country and around the world). Maybe that's Santorum...

    January 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • buckybadger

      So you constantly vote for politicians who don't have your best interest in mind just because they share you religious views or they tell you that to get your vote? Your religious views are opinion and should NOT be forced on other people. Santorum is a guy who doesn't like freedom of choice unless its his choice. Not what this country is about.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  9. Monbois

    The Pope is a Nazi and Santorum's a puke!

    January 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Julius

      No, Santorum's a santorum.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Fascist

      Sadly, the Pope is not a Nazi. Fascism forward!

      January 3, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  10. Ethan Nelson

    This makes some sense. I'm one of those 'religious right' nuts everyone always is freaking out about and I would trade gay marriage for a permanent end to abortion in a heart beat. A politician's ability to recognize life and value it rates high on my ethical scale.

    January 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  11. Zen

    Surge? What surge? Oh yeah because the media tells us that suddenly someone is popular we should all pay attention to him and discard the other candidates. This a strategy to take attention away from the other candidates, in the hopes that people do not vote for Ron Paul. Have you noticed that CNN is not attacking Romney? Hmmmmm coincidence?
    If you want REAL change vote RON PAUL 2012. Do not vote for the establishment!

    January 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Antidisestablishmentarian

      Rock on!

      January 3, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  12. DriveThemFromTheTemple

    The gay vote is coming out for Rick.

    January 3, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  13. AGuest9

    "threw myself into sharing my faith and promoting conservative causes"

    Continuing to force their views on everyone else.

    January 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Eartha

      I hope they weren't political conservative causes because you just railed against that in your story.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • KJC

      I think you're missing his point. He is describing how he USED TO be – establishment conservative. But as he matured, he realized there are OTHER issues he cares about which are more typically considered liberal causes, such as the fight against poverty. So now he sees himself caught between two political poles, not unwavingly committed to just one of them.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  14. Iqbal Khan


    January 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  15. WWRRD

    Good Perspective. I liked this. The older generation of Evangelicals have given Christians a bad image. Too many people view Christians as filled with hypocrisy and spite, and listening to Bachman you can understand why.

    January 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Patrick

      I live in the Bible belt if anything the new generation is even more fanatical. He even mentions this in the article.

      -My generation of evangelicals is just as pro-life as our parents' generation (some studies say we’re more so)

      January 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "The older generation of Evangelicals have given Christians a bad image."

      Perhaps it's just Evangelicals in general.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Patrick

      Perhaps it's just Christians in general.

      January 3, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  16. Iqbal Khan

    He is a fake as the rest, all supported by special intrest groups, worried about another country more then USA.
    Ron Paul isthe only one who is making any sense

    January 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  17. Brother Maynard

    Whatever you do ... DON'T google 'Santorum'

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

      frothy surge.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  18. Church of Suicidal

    Aren't much fun? No, wait. That's something else...

    January 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Church of Suicidal

      Sigh. That was supposed to be a response to tj...

      January 3, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  19. media pawn

    Have you noticed how every single republican candidate has had their turn at a "surge" like clockwork? This way there is always a new story every week or two in order to keep it interesting, just like professional wrestling.

    January 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • toxictown

      Exactly. They could have done this election last summer – It was always going to be Romney vs Obama – the media is just scared that they have nothing to fill up the next 10mos.

      January 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  20. tj

    Dead Babies ?

    January 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
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