Christian Activists Eye Third Party

Christian conservatives want more respect. They were instrumental in propelling George W. Bush to power—twice—and now they're feeling neglected. At a "Values Voters" summit in Washington last week, leading evangelicals gathered to speak out and take a straw poll. The survey showed how unhappy they are with the twice-divorced, pro-choice Republican frontrunner for the presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani. He got less than two percent of the overall vote. (Some Christian activists have threatened to back a third-party candidate if Giuliani wins the GOP nomination.) Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the straw poll of 5,775 conservatives, which included voters who were able to cast online ballots since August. But many evangelicals are uncomfortable with Romney's Mormon faith. That may have factored in the voting of people who actually attended the summit: Romney lost that tally by a wide margin to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is also an ordained Southern Baptist minister. To better understand the current thinking of Christian conservatives, Newsweek's Jeffrey Bartholet and Eve Conant spoke to Richard Land, a leading evangelical who serves as president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So we wanted to ask you, first of all, about the third party idea and whether it's serious. A number of people are suggesting it is just a threat.
Land:
My intuition [is that] this is not a bluff. If Giuliani is the nominee, there will be a third party. There are things that Giuliani could do to help mitigate the damage. But I have been in too many discussions over the last 15 years where evangelical leaders have said, "The one thing we will never allow to happen is for the Republican Party to take us for granted the way the Democrat Party too often takes the African-American community for granted."
This is not a bluff.

So what you are saying, as a bottom line, is that you would be prepared to help Hillary [Clinton] get elected if Giuliani were in the race?
Well, I personally wouldn't be saying that… It's just [that] I'm not willing or able to violate my moral conscience. It would be like asking an African-American to choose between Strom Thurmond and George Wallace or asking Abe Lincoln to vote for a pro-slavery candidate. I personally can't do it. I am not going to criticize those who choose the lesser-of-two-evils option. [But] I can't do it, and my guess is somewhere between 25 percent and a third of our people won't do it.

We met with Gov. Huckabee recently, and he said, "Well, why don't they vote for me right now? They've got me. Why do they need a third-party candidate?"
Well, I think if anybody other than Giuliani is the nominee, there won't be a third party.

But his point is that you are not helping him to beat Giuliani.
Well, that's not my job. That's Governor Huckabee's job. I just encourage people to vote their values and their beliefs and their convictions, and when I am asked why Huckabee isn't doing better, I can only answer that that's up to the voters.

Did I hear you say that there are things that Giuliani can do that could mitigate...
No, he's not going to do that, and if he did, nobody would believe it. He would [have to] say, number one, "This is a pro-life party; I realize I am out of step with where the party is, and I am not going to try to in any way weaken the [pro-life] plank." He could say, "I will only appoint strict constructionists, original-intent jurists to the federal judiciary." Strict constructionists by definition think that Roe v. Wade was an overreach, and is a badly decided decision. If he were to agree to appoint a pro-life attorney general in the mode of a John Ashcroft…

Just to go back, he has said repeatedly that he supports strict constructionists, right? So that much he's already done.
That's one.

Okay. So he's passed that test.
The thing is to do the whole basket. And if he also said, "I will not veto any legislation that comes across my desk that restricts abortion. And if he were then to further say, "I will veto any legislation that comes to my desk that expands abortion rights…" If he did that, he would mitigate the damage.

Is there a short list of people that you could imagine serving the role as the [candidate of a] third party?
No. I haven't really thought about it. And as I said, I won't do anything to help formulate a third party.

What's your view of Romney?
Well, he seems to have been an extremely effective chief executive officer. He seems to have been a very confident governor. I don't have a problem with his recent conversion to the pro-life, pro-marriage stance. The media does, and the reason is [that] the media overwhelmingly is on the other side of that issue. So they see any switch away from their position as obviously having some nefarious connotation.

Well, I think the term "flip-flopper" was coined by your side, wasn't it?
Well, not by me… But I think that if he wants to gain the kind of support [from] evangelicals that he wants, he needs to give a JFK-type speech [in which Kennedy said he was "not the Catholic candidate for President," but rather a candidate "who happens also to be a Catholic."]. I have told him this.

What are the three or four things that he absolutely needs to say more vigorously?
For starters, he needs to quit trying to convince evangelicals that Mormonism is an orthodox, with a small "o," Trinitarian, with a capital "T," Apostolic, with a capital "A," faith. He is not going to win that argument [and] he doesn't need to try. That's not the issue. Kennedy didn't try to defend Catholicism. He defended the right of a Catholic to run for President. What I think Romney has to do is he has to give a speech in which he defends the right of a Mormon to run for president and appeals to Americans' basic sense of fair play. I would encourage him to say that "there was no higher percentage of Mormons in my administration than there were Mormons in the percentage of the population in Massachusetts."
That is a concern that has been expressed to me by my constituents--that he would have a disproportionate number of Mormons in his administration.

What did Romney say [when you suggested that]?
He said he would consider it. [But] he has not given that speech. I've seen him go to South Carolina and say things like, you know, "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior." Well, you know what, that ain't going to work in South Carolina. The most generous description [evangelicals] will give [Mormonism] is the one that I give it, which is that it is the fourth Abrahamic religion, you know, Judaism being the first, Christianity being the second, and Islam being the third. And Joseph Smith plays the Mohammed figure in a fourth Abrahamic faith, but it is not a Trinitarian Christian faith. Evangelicals know this because the two most evangelistic groups in America are evangelicals and Mormons, and so evangelical pastors have taught their people what Mormonism believes because they want to inoculate them against [missionaries]. They know. I mean, they have had Sunday school classes, and they have had sermons preached on the beliefs of Mormonism. Trust me, that is not an argument he is going to win, and it is not an argument he has to win.

What about [Fred] Thompson? You know, there was a lot of enthusiasm for him [and] it seems to be deflating.
Well, we'll see. You know, the one hole in his resume was that he's never run anything, but he's running a campaign now, and we're going to know within 60 to 90 days whether he's an effective executive or not. I thought in the first debate that he started off shaky and found his sea legs and was in charge of all he surveyed by the end. He's also been my senator for eight years. I have seen him campaign up close and personal. He's a natural retail politician.

Do you buy this portrait of him as not having fire in the belly?
No, I don't. He wouldn't run if he didn't have a desire to be president, but he wants to be president for a reason.

If the Republicans do nominate Giuliani and if the Democrats nominate Hillary, do you think Hillary is more likely--
I don't know. I do see Giuliani as sort of an East Coast version of [California Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger. I think that what you could see is a complete scrambling of the red-blue state map, so that you would have Giuliani running on a conservative fiscal and security platform and a liberal social-issues platform, winning a state like California and then losing a state like Texas. Enough [evangelicals] could stay home, and I think Hillary will get massive turnout among African Americans, a massive turnout among working-class women, and a massive turnout among Hispanics, so that you could see California and Pennsylvania and New Jersey and New York going red, and you could see Alabama and Tennessee and Florida and Texas going blue.

When Rudy says "I will appoint strict constructionist judges," you are not hearing that?
I hear it. I hear it.

Well, you don't hear Hillary saying that.
[Land turns to question a Newsweek reporter] Could you vote for a Klansman?

[Reporter responds] No.

You've answered my question. I cannot vote for someone who believes that it's all right to stop a beating heart.

But when he says [he would] appoint nothing but constructionist judges, [perhaps] he is trying to say to you, "I am in your camp, but I don't want to say it too loud because I want to win the general election…" you know--
But he's not in my camp. And I hesitate to say this, but I might as well because it is in the equation. If Giuliani were a once-married man who was still faithful to his wife, I might be more inclined to take his promises seriously, but he is a thrice-married and twice-divorced man, and the circumstances of at least his second divorce are abominable. Now, I am not saying that I wouldn't vote for a divorced man. I am not saying that divorce disqualifies a man or a woman from being President.

McCain, for example.
Yeah. Well, and Thompson and Reagan. When it comes to divorce for most evangelicals in 2007, the number and the circumstances are important. In terms of numbers, more than one divorce is a problem, and adultery is a problem.

Do you feel that to be a person of faith, being pro-life goes with it?
I think it's impossible for me to comprehend how a person can be a person of faith and be pro choice and be consistent, but human beings by nature are inconsistent. Look, I grew up in a society where I am very grateful that I was always taught at home that racism was not only wrong, it was sinful, but I lived in a society [Houston] that was still segregated. I went to segregated schools, lived in a segregated neighborhood, and I knew people who were in many ways profoundly faithful and religious people who had an enormous blind spot called "race." For many of them, it was a very paternalistic attitude. It wasn't a hostile, vicious attitude, but it was a very paternalistic one.

Did anything about the recent "Values Voters" summit in Washington surprise you? Anything in the results of the straw poll?
The straw poll, no. I wasn't surprised that Huckabee won among the people actually there, and that Mitt Romney mounted a strong Internet voting campaign and won the whole thing. Romney's campaign is extremely well organized and extremely efficient. People who were there told me that Huckabee did phenomenally well in his speech. Mike's a tremendous speaker, and he was speaking to his crowd. Probably 75 percent of the people in that room are evangelical Christians.

Is Huckabee's success there a harbinger of things to come? Is he starting to gain some traction?
We'll see. Everyone says he does great when he speaks; everyone says he does great in the debates. But so far that hasn't translated either into fundraising success or into a surge in the polls. He's moved up, and I would think he's a natural inheritor of what support [Kansas Sen. Sam] Brownback had. But I just looked at a Politico.com poll that showed that Thompson was the favorite of churchgoing evangelicals, and Giuliani was second. So, you know, it's a crazy season.

What did you think of Giuliani's speech? Was he able to, as you put it, "mitigate" any of the negative perceptions about him among evangelicals?
In that speech, no. In the recent debate, I think he helped himself a lot--[particularly] when he made the statement that if some sort of critical mass of four, five or six states [allow] same-sex marriage, he would support a constitutional amendment [to ban it]. He said that had always been his position. It may have been, but he certainly kept it a well-guarded secret. That will help him among social conservatives.

Did anything jump out at you and surprise you about the summit?
If the days of the so-called religious right are done, why did all the Republican candidates show up? It doesn't look dead to me.

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