The GOP's Vicious Religious Warfare: The Arms Race for Extremists' Hearts and Minds
There is a lot of talk in the political media about the “invisible primary,” which is the lining up of big donors and establishment endorsements. On the Democratic side, the winner of this invisible primary so far is Hillary Clinton, who has gathered many endorsements and has collected a healthy amount of major Democratic donor money. On the Republican side the invisible primary is almost as fractious as the campaign itself, with Bush, Walker, Kasich, Rubio and the rest of the allegedly establishment candidates wooing and being wooed by Republican billionaires of all stripes — conservative, ultra-conservative and extreme. Trump is already a big winner of his own invisible primary; at yesterday’s Iran rally he promised even more declaring, “I’ll win so much, you’ll get bored with winning”.
But there’s another invisible primary going on as well and it’s an important one: the Evangelical primary. I’ve written here before about how important this constituency is to the GOP base. Indeed, one might even say that white Evangelical voters and the churches to which they belong are as important to the Republicans as the unions are to the Democrats. They are the footsoldiers. And as much as the elites may want to keep them under control and out of sight when the national zeitgeist shifts against conservative morality (it goes back and forth), since at least 1980 they know they cannot alienate them. And any conservative politician who is building himself or herself a long career needs to cultivate them carefully.
So, in this hugely populated race for the GOP presidential nomination, this invisible Evangelical primary could be more salient than usual. While the field is full of religious-right candidates — like Scott Walker, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal, just to name three also-rans — it is Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson who are the clear favorites. (Walker polls in the middle of the field but he’s been having problems with Christian conservatives for some time, despite his impressive evangelical bona fides.)
Trump is currently polling well among Evangelicals, but it’s unlikely that a serial divorcer with a shaky record on abortion can hold this whole group no matter how many times he declares that the Bible is his favorite book. But as I wrote here, it won’t be for lack of trying. Trump has been doing outreach with the Christian right since 2012 and spent a lot of money and time cultivating their support.
Nonetheless, Ben Carson leads the invisible evangelical primary in Iowa at the moment. Polls show him gaining significantly on Trump there and with such a large contingent of religious right voters, the very pious Carson is a natural favorite. He is a political extremist, but then so are they. The big question has been if Carson could do as well in evangelical circles in southern states. If the new PPP poll is correct, he’s certainly doing better than any of the others in South Carolina, so that’s a good sign. Trump has almost double his support though, which is perhaps why Carson challenged the sincerity of Trump’s faith yesterday.
But what of the other two big Christian right contenders, Huckabee and Cruz? Well, they seem to be going head to head, fighting for pre-eminence among the more militant of religious conservatives. This week we saw quite a spectacle with Cruz nearly coming to blows with a Huckabee staffer at the Kim Davis rally when Cruz tried to join the group onstage. Huckabee’s campaign had reportedly done all the leg work for the rally and perhaps they thought that Cruz was crashing their event like some Code Pink protester. In any case, the little contretemps showed just how important it is for candidates of the Christian right to be seen as warriors for family values and religious liberty. Kim Davis and her stand against gay marriage was an excellent way to show fealty to the cause.
Unfortunately, there was only room for one Christian soldier on that stage, and Huckabee used all of it, strutting around unctuously begging the authorities to let Kim Davis go and take him instead — even though Davis was a free woman standing right there on the the side of the stage. Judging by the response at right-wing Twitter aggregation site Twitchy, conservatives were divided on who won that round, with some calling Huckabee disgraceful and others saying “if Ted Cruz can’t stand up to Mike Huckabee …”
Cruz pouted for a bit and then headed back to Washington to join the rally against the Iran peace agreement and once again call the president “the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.” He seemed a bit overshadowed at that event as well, as Trump and Sarah Palin took the spotlight and competed for who could serve the best word-salad for lunch.
However, Cruz did have some very good news yesterday, which may just put him over the top of the invisible Evangelical primary when all is said and done:
David Barton, an influential Christian author and activist, is taking charge of the leading super-PAC supporting Ted Cruz.
The super-PAC, Keep the Promise PAC, is the umbrella for a group of related pro-Cruz political committees that raised $38 million in the first half of the year, more than the super-PACs supporting any other candidate with the exception of Jeb Bush.
Barton’s appointment highlights the role that Evangelical Christians are playing in the Cruz campaign. The Texas senator is the son of a preacher and announced his presidential bid at Liberty University, a Christian institution founded by the televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Barton is a self-taught historian, former school administrator and the founder of Wallbuilders, a group dedicated to the idea that the U.S. was established as a Christian nation and should embrace those roots. Time Magazine named him one of the country’s top 25 most influential Evangelicals in 2005.
There is no one more responsible than David Barton for the vast amounts of misinformation and downright lies the evangelical right believes about the fundamental nature of the U.S. constitution and the founders’ intentions. He has quite literally written a parallel history, using phony documents and misconstrued facts to prove that the American Revolution was a religious crusade for the express purpose of creating a Christian nation. He was most recently exposed as a fraud when constitutional scholars of all political persuasions proved that his book “The Jefferson Lies” was riddled with errors and his publisher withdrew it from the shelves. Not that it mattered. As usual in these cases, Barton insisted he was a persecuted martyr and his stock among the Christian conservatives went way up.
If Mike Huckabee thought he won a battle by keeping Cruz off the stage down there in Tennessee, Cruz knew he won the war. Barton is not only a Christian right superstar; he also has a huge boatload of money to spend on him. His “Keep the Promise” PAC is is funded by some extremely wealthy conservative energy billionaires from Texas and one hugely wealthy hedge fund billionaire from New York, who mainly wants to abolish the IRS. Their investment makes the statement announcing Barton’s appointment downright hilarious:
“From the outset, the Keep the Promise PACs made their mission to provide a voice for the millions of courageous conservatives who are looking to change the direction of the country. Barton’s involvement is an important step signaling that the effort will not be run by a D.C. consultant but by a grassroots activist.”
Nothing says “grassroots” like fracking billionaires and hedge-fund tycoons. But in a way it’s a perfect amalgam of the invisible donor primary and the invisible Evangelical primary. Big money and big Christian Right cred. It’s probably too early to declare that Cruz has scored a win — after all, “the Evangelicals love Trump” too and Carson remains a threat. But he’s definitely a player. And whatever happens in the presidential race, that makes Cruz an even more powerful figure on the right.