The flare-up between the U.S. and Israel is sorely testing relations between the two countries. It’s also rousing a group of Americans who have been largely out of the headlines in the Obama era: the religious right, which is rallying to the Netanyahu government’s defense.
Gary Bauer, who advised John McCain on outreach to evangelical groups in 2008 and ran for president himself in 2000, just returned from the Jewish state, where he led 700 supporters in a rally for the Israeli government. Bauer, who now leads the advocacy group American Values, is upset that the Obama administration’s decision to take Israel to task over the new settlements. Perhaps no group has been as unflagging in its back of Israel than evangelicals in the U.S.
Click Image for a Gallery of Candidates Running on Faith
“I continue to think it’s odd that the U.S. is suggesting to Israel that there are neighborhoods in Jerusalem where more Jews are not allowed to live,” Bauer told The Daily Beast. “This is the first black president, and that is called segregation.”
Some of the Christian right’s favored candidates for the 2010 midterms are also seizing on the Israeli dispute as a sign of the White House’s failings. Florida Senate hopeful Marco Rubio told the Wall Street Journal this weekend that American commitments to Israel have flagged under Obama. In Pennsylvania, another Republican hopeful Pat Toomey rallied to Israel’s defense Tuesday.
• Lloyd Grove: Jewish Anger at ObamaThe rallying cry is notable, especially since the religious right has been relatively quiet during the Obama presidency. Sure, the abortion plank of the health-care debate stirred passions. But by and large, Christian evangelicals have been overshadowed by the Tea Party types in coverage of the conservative base.
For many, the presidency of George W. Bush appeared the high-water mark of the religious right’s political strength. A born-again Christian walked the halls of the West Wing. The 2008 campaign was a letdown, as Republicans nominated John McCain—a man who famously branded the movement’s leaders “agents of intolerance” during the 2000 presidential primaries. McCain later made his peace with them, and his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate helped rev the evangelical Christian machine. But it was also a reminder that McCain needed all the help in those quarters that he could get.
President Obama, who reportedly receives Scripture on his BlackBerry each morning, has largely avoided social issues, keeping health care and the economy front and center. But then again, the latter issue has crossover appeal; according to John C. Green, a leading scholar of religion and politics, evangelicals and conservative Catholics rank the economy as their primary concern today.
Christian conservatives are also having to deal with turnover in their leadership ranks. Jerry Falwell died in 2007, and last month, Dr. James C. Dobson left Focus on the Family, which he had led since 1977. Pat Robertson turns 80 next week, and his influence has dissipated. Then there’s Reed, who before last week had been little heard from since an unsuccessful run for Georgia’s lieutenant governor’s office. During that race, he was troubled by his business relationship with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and he has yet to emerge completely from the scandals. ( Reed has denied wrongdoing.)
“The question of new leadership becomes really important. If new leaders don’t emerge, it will just be harder,” said Green, the professor of religion and public life.
What’s more, younger voters are trending in the wrong direction; they are less religiously affiliated than their predecessors, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Still, as the economy improves, the religious right will be pressing their issues hard.
That, of course, won’t favor the Democrats; they’ve seen their favorability ratings on religion slip since the 2008 campaign, according to a Pew Research Center survey taken this winter. And despite Obama’s urgings that the conversation over abortion move beyond its 35-year impasse, the prominence of Rep. Bart Stupak, the Democrat from Michigan, who has balked on health care legislation over the question of taxpayer funding for abortion, is a reminder of how deeply the issue still divides us.
Throughout the ranks, there are signs that evangelicals are readying for the midterm battle. Ralph Reed, the man once dubbed “The Right Hand of God,” announced last week that he won’t be running for Congress. But Greg Keller, the executive director of Reed’s new group, Faith and Freedom Coalition, says his troops are targeting Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the pro-life, nonpartisan and non-religious Susan B. Anthony List, says her group added Nevada and Colorado to that list and says they will begin endorsing candidates in the coming weeks.
After interviews with conservative strategists and evangelical leaders, The Daily Beast compiled a list of 10 of the candidates creating the most excitement in the religious right’s circles. Some are traditional fiscal conservatives like Senate candidate Pat Toomey, who has shown an ability to attract the party’s faith flank. Others, like Jane Norton, who is running for the Senate in Colorado, and Marco Rubio, the beau of the Conservative Political Action Conference ball last month, have made their beliefs a part of their image.
Reed promises to turn out one million new faith-based voters for this election. Dannenfelser adds, “We are approaching the election, already have been, early on with a will to win.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.