How Karl Rove Changed Faith-Based Politics

With the growing diversification of our North American population, nearly any way you slice it, previously coveted blocs of voters are becoming increasingly fragmented. There’s no longer such a thing as winning “the black vote,” or “the female vote.” Even as we become increasingly complex in our ethnic makeup, so are the nuances of belief and values within demographic groups.

It’s a topical conversation around many tables these days to suppose when the Republican Party became so closely linked to evangelical Christians. Did it happen under Reagan? Was it a gradual reaction over decades to the increasingly secular mindset of the Democratic Party? Did George W. Bush, himself a self-proclaimed born-again Christian, win them over with his populist, folksy rhetoric?

Actually, the most influential figure in the migration of evangelicals to the Republican side of the ticket can be traced directly to Karl Rove.

A recent New Yorker article outlines how Rove, in parsing out trends within Catholic voters, figured out a formula, which was: Catholics who attend religious services regularly are overwhelmingly socially conservative overall, while Catholics attending Mass less often are more socially liberal. Applied more broadly, this trend continued throughout all mainline faiths.

So what better place to woo a passionate and millions-strong coalition upon which a new Republican party would be built than within the walls of America’s churches?

Powerful leaders like Pat Robertson, John Hagee and James Dobson became the focal point of Republican courtship. The relationship flourished more or less until the onset of the current political season, and subsequently, the emergence of John McCain as the Republican nominee.

McCain, always one to speak his mind, made no friends with Hagee and his crew, labeling some of them “agents of intolerance” in a speech. He has since mended fences with some religious figureheads out of a mutual desire to maintain control of the presidency, but the marriage is, at best, ambivalent.

Barack Obama presented a unique opportunity for Democrats to re-enter the religious discussion, given his frequent and public claims as a man of faith, while also being strongly Democrat. At the same time, many evangelicals began to resist the monolithic label of being ad hoc Republicans. There was greater social relevance in embracing “bridge” issues like climate change, poverty and genocide, rather than focusing so intensely on the “wedge” issues of abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage.

It’s not been an easy road to travel for Obama, however. From rumors of his supposed closet radical Muslim agenda to his ties to the firebrand Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama raises many eyebrows within the broad – and increasingly diverse – evangelical camp.

More important than the way evangelicals swing for either candidate this year is, I believe, the importance that no single party has a chokehold on the Christian faith’s vote. As we’ve seen with groups that lean toward one party or the other too faithfully, there’s always the risk of being taken for granted by one side, and effectively written off by the other.

The challenge, then, falls to each voter, each family, and each community to determine what they believe is best for the country at that given time. It requires critical thought, a discerning eye to cut through the rhetorical clutter, and vigilance not to fall victim to party fidelity over issues and present-day needs.

The day either party takes for granted that they are assured a carte blanche vote in their favor is the time when all members of that group should consider the value and power of their support. Just as women, Latinos and African-Americans can no longer be depended upon to carry the Democrats, neither can the Republicans trust that the evangelical vote is in their back pocket.

If it leads to more independent thought and action, the shift is welcome, and long overdue.