In Search of a Political Savior

They'd come to pay their respects to the past, but the talk soon turned to the future. The country's leading conservative Christians convened in Lynchburg, Va., last week to bury the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the televangelist who, decades ago, fused politics and religion and helped define the GOP as the party of the faithful. Now, as the mourners straggled out of the church, some wondered aloud about the 2008 presidential election. Did any of the 10 Republican candidates deserve their coveted blessing? "Ralph Reed asked me who I was interested in," says Richard Viguerie, the longtime conservative political consultant. Viguerie had no good answer. He turned the question back on Reed, a Republican operative who once led the Christian Coalition. Reed shrugged his shoulders. "There's just nobody out there," says Viguerie.

Surveying the crowded GOP field, many evangelicals are feeling unloved, and unsettled. Conservative Christians were crucial in sending George W. Bush to the White House—and were even more important to his narrow re-election in 2004—but many evangelical leaders complain that he hasn't shown much thanks, and their devotion to the born-again president is waning. They are disappointed that he has abandoned his election-year promise to push for an anti-gay-marriage amendment, even as Dick Cheney is posing for pictures with the newborn son of his lesbian daughter and her partner. Though Bush talked a lot during the campaign about the "culture of life," many Christian conservatives do not believe he uses his bully pulpit enough to denounce abortion. Disappointment in Bush is now translating into deep skepticism among evangelicals about the men who are vying to succeed him. So far, the leading GOP candidates leave them cold. Front runner Rudy Giuliani is tainted by his messy divorces and support for abortion rights—a deal breaker for Christian conservatives. McCain is against abortion, but evangelical leaders haven't forgotten that he denounced them as "agents of intolerance" back in 2000. His campaign-reform bill is also deeply unpopular among religious interest groups.

The others aren't any more appealing. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney looks presidential and says all the right things, but many evangelicals say his rightward drift on the issues smacks of political opportunism. "Sure, Ronald Reagan changed his mind on abortion," says Viguerie. "But not on 25 other things, too." Another issue is his Mormonism. The Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land joined a dozen other evangelicals in a private meeting at Romney's home last October. "I told him: you need to give the 1960 Kennedy speech, when he said, 'I'm not a Catholic candidate, I'm the Democratic candidate'." But so far Romney has failed to convince evangelicals that he is one of them. Some in the religious right talked up Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, sturdy conservatives with impeccable Christian credentials. But their campaigns have gone nowhere.

The big worry among some Republican strategists: that millions of evangelicals who turned out for Bush in 2000 and 2004 won't crank up their formidable money and promotion machine if the party nominates a Giuliani or a McCain. Grover Norquist, the influential conservative strategist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, says that no matter how upset evangelicals may be, they aren't going to do anything that hands the White House to the Democrats. "Evangelicals will vote for whoever can beat Hillary. They are more sophisticated than they were 20 years ago." But others disagree. "Where you won't see them is working the phone banks or sending out mailings," says Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council. "It's foolish and naive for moderate Republicans to think we'll just push aside the issues."

If evangelicals feel snubbed by the party, they could show their displeasure in other ways. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, says that faced with a pro-choice candidate like Giuliani, evangelicals may even choose "an alternative form of expression." They could abandon the GOP in 2008 and put their power behind a third-party candidate, he says—though he is quick to add that that's unlikely at this point.

It's still early, and there are plenty of candidates—including a few waiting in the wings, such as Newt Gingrich—openly courting the support of conservative Christians. At the moment, only one is generating actual excitement among evangelicals: Fred Thompson, the "Law & Order" star and former Republican senator who is seriously flirting with running. Earlier this month nearly 400 members of the Council for National Policy, a club of Christian conservatives, packed into a hotel ballroom in Virginia to hear him speak. Many see Thompson as a candidate who shares key values—on abortion, gay marriage and Supreme Court justices—but who also stands a chance of winning. (He has 10 percent support in the polls, even before announcing.) Some evangelicals in the audience went away swooning. "Watching Fred Thompson work a crowd must be what it was like to watch Rembrandt paint," gushed Land, a fellow Tennessean who introduced him at the gathering. That kind of over-the-top enthusiasm could be the beginning of a movement—or just another sign of desperation.