New concerns crack unity of religious right

Conservative campus shows divisions on candidates, Iraq

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, received the endorsement of Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, in Washington earlier this month. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, received the endorsement of Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, in Washington earlier this month. (Mike Theiler/reuters)
Email|Print| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / November 18, 2007

LYNCHBURG, Va. - On Main Street of this Civil War-vintage city, known in recent years as the birthplace of the religious right, the only political sign bears the name of Ron Paul, the antiwar libertarian who is running for the Republican nomination.

At nearby Liberty University, the headquarters of the late founder of the Moral Majority, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, many students say the campus is divided between at least five Republican presidential candidates, including Paul, and some support for Democrats, as well.

With just weeks remaining until primary season, leaders and foot soldiers of the religious right have come to a surprising conclusion: Their bloc of voters, considered by many to be the largest single constitu ency in the Republican Party, is not going to break for any one candidate in 2008.

If religious conservatives split up their votes, the religious right would lose an opportunity to earn a significant debt from the eventual nominee, and no candidate would receive the kind of 11th-hour boost that many had been hoping for.

"It appears that at this point there is going to be a diversity of opinion," concluded Stephen Witham, associate professor at Liberty's Jesse Helms School of Government. "Some prefer one, some prefer others - and all for different reasons."

The disunity on the religious right has become especially apparent over the last two weeks, with the endorsement of Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, and longtime leader Paul Weyrich's choice of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith is regarded with suspicion by some evangelical Christians. After those endorsements, the leading antiabortion group, the National Right to Life Committee, opted for a third candidate, former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

While there has long been dissatisfaction with the field of GOP hopefuls, until very recently many religious conservatives - as well as the candidates themselves - expected that the movement would coalesce around a single candidate, sending millions of votes to a contender who would then win the GOP nomination, with a heavy debt to social conservatives.

Now, while candidates are expected to continue courting uncommitted leaders such as James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, religious conservatives acknowledge not only that the field of candidates is imperfect, but that their movement itself is no longer unified behind a set agenda.

The intensive focus on opposing abortion and gay rights that drove many to the polls in 2004 has broadened to include many other issues, including the Iraq war.

While some leaders say they are suffering for their success - that too many candidates are competing for "pro-family" voters - others privately acknowledge that the religious right is losing clout. By failing to rally around a single candidate, the movement will not maintain the political influence wielded by Falwell and others who helped tip the Republican nominating process in favor of candidates such as Ronald Reagan over George H.W. Bush in 1980 and George W. Bush over John McCain in 2000.

"I see it as a sign that pro-family, values voters have matured," said Roy Jones, director of development for Liberty University and the Liberty Alliance, which succeeded the Moral Majority as Falwell's political arm. "In the old days, even as recently as the Clinton administration, values voters had what I call the messianic complex - looking for a Ronald Reagan, one guy who'll ride in on a white horse who'll save everything. Now we see a range of issues. Abortion is still the fulcrum, but we're looking at other issues, whether taxes or spending or national security."

The range of issues may lead voters in so many different directions that the religious right ceases to be a bloc. Jones said he "scratched his head" when Robertson - who has been, since Falwell's death last spring, the movement's most visible leader - announced he was endorsing Giuliani.

Robertson declared that he would support Giuliani because "the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the blood lust of Islamic terrorists."

Many people at Liberty agree with Robertson about the importance of fighting terrorism, but most also trace the current identity crisis of the Christian right to differences over the Iraq war.

On no other issue do opinions vary as widely among social conservatives: Some Christian leaders have been rebuked for defending the war as a religious crusade; others don't see it as a war with Islam but nonetheless take a hawkish stance, as they did during the fight against communism, which was once a key tenet of the religious right. But many other social conservatives have objections to the continued US presence in Iraq.

"There's a whole slew of opinions, just like anywhere else," said Colin Harman, 23, a Liberty senior, referring to the Iraq war. "Some people are indifferent to it. Some have relatives who are serving, who want to support them but also want them home as quickly as possible. There's just a whole lot of views."

Steven Mesanko, a 22-year-old senior, said that even though most of the university community members are committed Christians, "People are still people, and there's a slew of different opinions."

Founded in 1971 by Falwell, who wanted to create a Baptist equivalent of such powerful religious universities as Notre Dame and Brigham Young, Liberty has grown to become a community of 20,000 students. A museum on campus attests to its founder's history of political activism, including a 1980 Newsweek cover featuring Falwell and "Born-Again Politics," and a gallery of photos showing Falwell with political figures ranging from George Wallace to Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush to antigay rights activist Anita Bryant.

But with the university's growth has come a greater range of political opinions. The diversity of views on Iraq was apparent last week at Jazzman's, an on-campus coffee house abutting the crowded Liberty computer center.

While students are obliged to maintain a strict moral code and adhere to the college's interpretation of religious teachings, there is no official position on US foreign policy. Some students said that international students, who now comprise 7 percent of the school's enrollment, have taken the lead in questioning US actions in Iraq. Now, students of all types have no hesitation about expressing concerns about the war policies of President Bush, who was once a revered figure in many religious-right circles.

"The Republican Party in general is in an awkward position this year with the war," said Rachel Adkins, 20, a senior at the college. "People want a place for their socially conservative views, but they are upset with what's going on internationally. After this war, people are going to start thinking for themselves again - thinking about their values and where they'll put their loyalties."

Indeed, the debate over Iraq seems to have put other issues in play, prompting a deeper examination of how Christian values intersect with politics. Jason O'Hara, a 22-year-old senior, said that while there is less difference of opinion on social issues at Liberty than there is on non-Christian campuses, he has heard students take varying stances on such issues as universal healthcare and environmental protection.

As a result of all the new issues on the table, students are looking in some unusual precincts - including the libertarian Paul and the Democratic Party - for political candidates to support.

"There's a huge difference from person to person on this [presidential] campaign," O'Hara said. "People will say, 'I'll vote Republican because I'm a Christian at Liberty University,' but there's a huge difference from person to person. My roommate is a Democrat and loves Hillary Clinton. He just wants Bill Clinton back in office."

As for O'Hara himself: He's taking a good look at Barack Obama.

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