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Religious right and the GOP

Pollster George Barna, the nation’s top researcher on religious topics, released results of his latest nationwide opinion survey this week suggesting that “Republicans have lost the allegiance of many born-again voters.” Four in 10 of the born-agains interviewed by The Barna Group say they’ll vote for the Democratic presidential nominee, compared to three in 10 who will vote for the Republican.

Although George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 24 percentage points among born-again Christians in 2004, according to Barna’s data, that feat won’t likely be duplicated by any Republican in 2008, even if all 28 percent who told Barna they are undecided today eventually move toward the GOP nominee.

The substance of these poll results, while disquieting, should not really surprise anyone who has been paying attention.

The Evangelical retreat from Republicans has been evident for years. It’s impossible to document the precise moment this trend commenced, but signs of it appeared as early as 1999 when insiders Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson published their cautious critique of the religious right, Blinded by Might. But their timid warnings seemed not to slack the enthusiasm of born-again Christians and their leaders for George W. Bush, a man who warmly embraced this slice of the electorate in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns.

David Kuo’s 2006 saga of the internal collapse of “compassionate conservatism” in the Bush administration, Tempting Faith, describes years of festering resentment between secular and religious conservatives in the Washington power structure, a battle the more experienced and ingrained seculars were better prepared to win. Kuo documented slights and disappointments in the ranks of Bush and Jesus followers that began even before the president ever moved into the White House.

Then there was the very public fall of Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader who got besmirched by associations with Enron, Indian casinos, Jack Abramoff and a host of other plagues. Even if unfair and distorted, the news about choir boy Reed’s alleged escapades doubtless disheartened more Christians about mixing religion and politics.

Reed’s tumble was also particularly significant because he is one of the few insider Republican consultants with any actual, first-hand understanding of faith and belief. Without him, Republicans too frequently have people in charge who see Christians as a motley constituency to be bilked for support without the need for respect and genuine political reciprocity.

The sordid sexual tales of Ted Haggard, Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) provided more embarrassing reasons for some Christians to retreat from mixing their religion with Republican partisan politics.

In this ugly vacuum, many leaders of the old religious guard have passed on or retreated from the public limelight to be replaced by less political figures, emerging megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. Most leaders of any Evangelical persuasion have stayed on the sidelines of the nominating process this cycle.

Simultaneously, the intellectual corner of the intersection between religion and politics is being dominated by liberal thinkers like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo. They always seem to be hawking new books and ideas subtly implying that Christians should think like Democrats. Even semi-conservative Catholic scholars like Gary Wills are penning New York Times best-seller titles that make Jesus seem like a bona fide Democrat. Almost no one on the conservative side seems well positioned to join this cerebral debate.

Meanwhile, the two Democratic presidential finalists seem more outwardly religious than the GOP front-runner, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks of Jesus like a friend. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) reminisces about teaching Methodist Sunday School. McCain seems more guarded than either Democrat when the topic of religion comes up.

this environment, Barna’s poll results shouldn’t surprise a soul.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.