Cover Story

Elephant in the room

Campaign 2008 | What do evangelical voters want? At the Washington summit religious right voters focused on front-runners who lack their core values while a loyal backfield gathers momentum

Issue: "Elephant in the room," Nov. 3, 2007

The confrontation at the top of the escalator in the Hilton Hotel was sudden and tense. Clad in black boots and a black "Mitt Romney" cap, Nancy French busily handed out buttons and pamphlets advertising "Evangelicals for Mitt."

French was one of nearly 2,000 evangelicals and conservatives who gathered in Washington, D.C., late last month for the Values Voter Summit sponsored by the Family Research Council (FRC).

All nine Republican presidential hopefuls spoke at the three-day conference, vying for the support of evangelicals at a crucial time for GOP candidates, who court the movement's endorsement, and for the religious right itself, struggling to maintain its relevance in a fractured GOP field.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

When Margo Hamilton stepped off the escalator in the hotel lobby, she didn't want a Romney button, but she did want to ask French a question: "Excuse me, are you Mormon?" "No," replied French, "I'm Presbyterian." "Do you know what Mormons believe?" asked Hamilton. "You know they're not Christians at all, right?"

For the next few minutes, the pair sparred over the nature of Mormonism, and whether Christians should support a Mormon for the highest elected office. Near the revolving doors at the lobby's exit, a frustrated Hamilton told WORLD that she believes evangelical support for Romney is a "gross mistake."

French finds the argument that a Mormon presidency would legitimize a false religion equally frustrating. While she acknowledged Mormonism "is not orthodox Christianity," she added, "You do not have to be theologically squishy to support Gov. Romney. We are different, but we are politically allied."

Like other evangelical Romney supporters, French summed up her position: "The bottom line is we need to win in '08, and he is exactly with us on moral issues."

The brief Friday night exchange-and many others like it-reflects the larger struggle churning among evangelicals who typically vote for Republicans: Among a strikingly diverse field of candidates in a complicated political environment, which one should they choose? And in a campaign season with Republicans trailing in fundraising and polls, how far are evangelicals willing to go to keep a Democrat out of the White House?

Despite whispered conversations in hallways and secret meetings behind closed doors, Christian leaders at the conference made clear they wouldn't use the summit to endorse a candidate. That's at least partly because many of those leaders seem torn as well.

Recently in Salt Lake City, some 45 prominent Christian leaders met to discuss the slate of Republican presidential candidates. Soon after, Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson indicated that he and other leaders would back a third-party candidate if Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination next year.

But in the days after Dobson's comments, other leaders who participated in the meeting-including Gary Bauer and FRC president Tony Perkins-publicly doubted the wisdom of planning for a third-party candidacy. At the Washington conference, Bauer told WORLD the idea is "political suicide. . . . I think that the energy that went into the debate about a third party is more wisely put into fighting for whatever nominee we want."

That's easier said than done. Bauer admits Christian leaders have not coalesced behind a single candidate, and he doesn't know if they will come to such an agreement. So far, those leaders are more united about which candidates they don't intend to support.

It's no secret that Giuliani tops that list. Several major Christian leaders have said they won't vote for the former mayor of New York City if he wins the nomination because of his pro-abortion views.

Giuliani was the last Republican candidate to accept an invitation to speak at the conference, and even his opponents admit it took courage for the candidate to address the overwhelmingly pro-life crowd. Bauer joked that "apart from being baptized on stage," Giuliani would have a tough time winning over this audience.

Giuliani didn't get baptized on stage, but he did quickly plunge into the topic of religion. At first he met a cool reception from the Saturday morning audience that had listened to seven other candidates tout their pro-life credentials the day before.

But Giuliani soon connected with the crowd with a strategy he uses often: brutal honesty.

He quickly admitted evangelicals don't agree with him on some issues, but insisted: "What unites us is greater than what divides us."

The reception grew warmer when Giuliani touted his success in cleaning up New York City and ridding Times Square of blocks of pornographic shops. But the loudest applause came when Giuliani played his trump card: a pledge to nominate strict constructionist judges.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Life with Lyme

    For long-term Lyme patients, treatment is a matter of…