Signs of GOP backlash against Christian right

December 17, 2007|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- For many sophisticated conservatives, Mitt Romney is an appealing presidential candidate. Before he served a respectable term as governor of Massachusetts, he rescued the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He has also been very successful in business, making millions as the co-founder of a private equity investment firm. Though his hyper-pandering to the narrow-minded in this campaign has cost him some honor, he's still smart, accomplished and photogenic.

He's also a Mormon, a biographical note that has caused considerable consternation among the ultraconservative Christians who make up a sizable portion of the GOP's core constituency. He is now under white-hot pressure from Mike Huckabee in Iowa and South Carolina, where hard-core believers have pumped up the Baptist preacher's poll numbers.

It's quite a quandary for those among the Republican establishment who see Mr. Romney as not only the most electable among the GOP nominees - he has more intellectual heft than Mr. Huckabee and none of Rudolph W. Giuliani's considerable baggage - but also as a genuinely well-qualified candidate.

And they're beginning to fret over those right-wing Christians who have painted Mormons as the children of Satan, a faction that wasn't placated by Mr. Romney's recent speech in which he declared his belief that "Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind."

This curious fracture among the GOP faithful conjures up another bit of biblical wisdom: "For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind" (Hosea 8:7).

For more than two decades, the Republican Party has employed a deliberate strategy of injecting "moral values" and religious beliefs into political and civic life.

Though the GOP was historically known for fiscal conservatism and government restraint, party strategists decided back in the 1980s to link arms with Christian zealots to secure the votes of their flocks.

Thus began a long association with such figures as the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell: dogmatic, dictatorial and intolerant.

To win Republican primaries, GOP candidates are expected to kowtow to those Christianists, and they have, all the while dismissing as immoral "secular humanists" those Americans who want to protect the wall separating church and state. In recent years, there have been few establishment conservatives willing to stand up to the zealots - and those who did have paid a price. (Sen. John McCain, who rightly labeled Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson "agents of intolerance" in his 2000 presidential campaign, comes to mind.)

But with ultraconservative Christians balking at the prospect of a Mormon president, many top conservatives are suddenly annoyed. This month, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, accusing Mr. Huckabee of "exploiting" religion, wrote, "Mormonism should be a total irrelevancy in any political campaign." Trained as a psychiatrist, Mr. Krauthammer has never aligned himself with the right-wing religionists, but he has been much more circumspect about President Bush's exploitation of religion.

A far stranger spectacle has been the sight of Ralph Reed, former Christian Coalition executive, on the airwaves denouncing voters who would use religious beliefs as a test for political office. "We've really gone over the line in this election," Mr. Reed said recently, complaining that presidential candidates are being subjected to "a doctrinal frisk."

Time for these folks to stop invoking Christ's name and start listening to Christ's message. Mitt Romney's candidacy should depend on how he leads, not on how he prays.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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