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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- On Jan. 14, a significant group of social conservative leaders gathered at the ranch of influential Southern Baptist layman and retired Texas Civil Appeals Court Judge Paul Pressler. While many of those leaders assembled were evangelicals, there were several prominent Catholic leaders in attendance as well.
These leaders came to Texas to explore the elusive goal of uniting as many social conservatives as possible around one presidential candidate as early as possible. Most came (including myself) to the meeting thinking that it was probably not possible to achieve any significant consensus, almost certainly not before South Carolinians voted in their presidential primary Jan. 21.
I attended the meeting because although the hosts knew that I do not endorse candidates, I shared their goal of social conservatives uniting behind one candidate at the earliest feasible date.
Most of the social conservative leaders were both startled and surprised that through their deliberations on that Friday night and Saturday morning, they were able to come to a "strong consensus" for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
From the beginning it was clear that the goal was to see if a group of social conservative leaders variously supportive of Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Santorum, could unite behind one of the three. Why? These leaders and the various groups they represent were increasingly frustrated at the divisions and lost potential impact revealed by the Iowa caucus results. When the votes of self-identified evangelicals were totaled together in Iowa (Santorum, 32 percent; Gingrich, 14 percent; Perry, 14 percent; Bachmann, 6 percent) they had 66 percent. If they had been cast for one candidate that candidate would have defeated Romney in a landslide, instead of Santorum's Iowa dead-heat with Romney. Many of them were also haunted by their failure to rally in 2008 behind Gov. Huckabee earlier, wondering if that would not have made him more viable in that election cycle.
After concise presentations by representatives of each of the presidential candidates (except Huntsman on Friday night) there was a thorough discussion of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the candidates on Saturday morning. Then a series of ballots was taken to see if any degree of consensus could be achieved. The first ballot revealed a surprisingly large preference for Santorum or Gingrich, with only a smattering of votes for Perry (13), Romney (3), one vote for Paul and one write-in for Gov. Huckabee.
It was quickly decided to take a second ballot just between Santorum and Gingrich, which resulted in an even clearer preference for Santorum. At this point most of the attendees were stunned that they had achieved such a startling sense of consensus. Frankly, I was shocked. Then, being social conservatives, they had to debate what kind of consensus they had achieved and ended up voting for a "strong consensus" over a "consensus" for Santorum.
This did not mean that everyone left there supporting Santorum. The minority that continued to support Gingrich on the third ballot was clearly going to continue that support, and there were a few, like me, who don't endorse candidates, period.
Many, not all, social conservatives continue to have doubts about whether Romney is a true social conservative. Frankly, if he had always shared his fellow Mormons' position on the sanctity of human life and same-sex "marriage," they would find it easier to trust him. Unfortunately, many people continue to feel as one participant put it, that in Romney, you have, "A very nice, decent guy, who's an updated version of Gerald Ford."
Why Santorum the Catholic over Perry the evangelical? First, the Catholic issue is pretty much irrelevant among social conservatives these days. In Iowa, 57 percent of Republican caucus voters identified themselves as born-again evangelicals and 60 percent of them voted for either a Catholic (Santorum, 32 percent; Gingrich, 14 percent; or a Mormon, Romney, 14 percent). And only 37 percent voted for the three Protestants: Perry, Bachmann and Paul. Second, of the three candidates seriously considered, Perry, the only Protestant, was perceived as fatally weakened by poor debate performances and unelectable. Between Santorum and Gingrich, Santorum was perceived to be the more consistently and reliably social conservative of the two.
Do the social conservative leaders assembled in Texas think Santorum has a chance of winning either the nomination or the general election? The feeling was they will never know how well he can do unless they unite their resources behind him and give it their best try. Furthermore, some asked, "How much chance was Sen. Obama given against Sen. Clinton in January 2008?"
I believe this meeting and its results bode well for the social conservative movement in the fall election cycle. If Romney, or Gingrich, does prevail in the Republican primaries, it will be easier for Santorum's backers to support the nominee comforted by the fact that they gave it their best shot and didn't win, fair and square instead of wondering what might have, or could have, been had they not attempted to unify.
The barbecue was good, the fellowship was better, and a great time was had by all.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. This column first appeared in The Washington Post's On Faith section. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).