Is the RNC Taking the Religious Right for Granted?

The Republican Party has problems coming sooner than it may think.


The Republican National Committee's analysis of why Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election was a wake-up call for the party. The 100-page document, which GOP leaders gloomily nicknamed the "autopsy," made a number of recommendations centered around welcoming different kinds of people into the Repbulican fold. Listen to minorities, show that the party cares about gays, talk to people who don't have the same perspectives—overall, create what the report heralded as "a party whose brand of conservatism invites and inspires new people to visit us."

But it wasn't just new people that the analysis urged reaching out to. Religious communities, too, were on the Republican precipice, and the GOP was concerned about maintaining its connection to them. Near the end of the report, its authors offered a solution: Hire a "faith-based outreach director to focus on engaging faith-based organizations and communities with the Republican Party."

The RNC heeded the advice. But as the party tries to diversify its base while looking ahead to 2016, it risks taking for granted the religion-driven voters who have powered its previous successes by presupposing they'll never leave.

A few months after the report's release, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus got in touch with Chad Connelly, then the state party chairman in South Carolina. A Southern Baptist deacon and a Sunday school teacher, Connelly became the RNC's inaugural liaison to religious communities. It was a landmark step for the GOP, which has long been considered the default party for the deeply religious. It was also an undeniable sign of the times.

"Somewhere between 3 and 4 million less—and this would be primarily evangelicals, born again, that category—came out in '12 than in '08," Connelly told National Journal. "Somewhere around 5 million less came out in '08 than in '04. So it just started looking like maybe we're just not doing a good job telling them the importance of being involved."

Because of their nonprofit status, houses of worship can't endorse candidates or political parties. But a growing number of Americans think that should change. For now, religious leaders are allowed to sermonize on issues of the moment, run voter-registration drives, and encourage congregations to get to the polls.

Connelly's primary goal, he said, is to build relationships with religious leaders of all kinds. He aims to relay to pastors and priests and rabbis that voting on religious values is a duty, and he hopes that they, in turn, will preach the morality of going to the polls.

"I don't tell 'em, you've gotta vote Republican, I don't tell 'em, you've gotta vote for this candidate. I think the pulpit's sacred," Connelly said. Still, he's confident that his get-out-the-vote efforts will prove fruitful for the GOP: "Just go get 'em voting. They're gonna vote our way."

It's an awfully assured attitude for Connelly, whose job emerged from the ashes of a humbling loss and a party trying to reconcile its mistakes. Rather than explain why the GOP is the best party for people of faith, he pointed to "the things that Democrats have embraced"—same-sex marriage, abortion rights—and said that the very religious have a harder time voting blue.

While it's true that the GOP has cornered the market on religious opposition to gay marriage, more Republican candidates support it than ever before. High-profile Republicans who back same-sex marriage, such as Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Mark Kirk of Illinois, don't dilute the party's writ-large position, Connelly said, citing Priebus's assertion on MSNBC earlier this month that the GOP still considers marriage to be between one man and one woman. Even so, it's not just those core issues that the religious community cares about.

"We've got a chaotic world out there," Connelly told National Journal. "It's falling apart at the seams. People need leadership. And I tell pastors, 'The people in your congregations, no matter what the church is, or where it's located, or what part of the country it's in, they need your leadership. They need to know how to sort through these issues, because it's a mess out there.'"

Connelly didn't elaborate on how Republicans, from a God-fearing perspective, could better handle Ebola or the Islamic State than Democrats such as President Obama, an avowed Christian. In the end, Connelly said, "I think they're gonna fall the right way"—that is, vote Republican.

For the Family Research Council, the conservative Christian powerhouse in Washington, that's certainly true. Ken Blackwell, FRC's senior fellow for family empowerment, told National Journal that despite some Republicans' support for same-sex marriage, he isn't worried about the GOP's commitment to Christians or their biblical values. A former Ohio secretary of state and a Republican nominee for governor there, Blackwell said he meets with Priebus regularly, and he called Republicans like Portman, a fellow Ohioan and personal friend, "an extreme minority within the party."

"This is a party where you're not going to have 100 percent agreement by 100 percent of the people," Blackwell told National Journal. "There's no panic button being pushed."

Over at the National Organization for Marriage, however, President Brian Brown has launched a defensive strike. In three midterm races this fall, the faith-based group has openly opposed Republican candidates who support same-sex marriage, including Carl DeMaio, the gay GOP challenger in California's 52nd District, who "will do far more damage long term to the Republican Party than simply having a Democrat elected," Brown told National Journal. Though Brown said he doesn't think it's likely that the party will change its stance on same-sex marriage, he's worried about the path blazed by DeMaio and Portman.

"Am I concerned? Yeah. But I'm not concerned if pro-family and pro-life voters stand up and demand accountability from the GOP," Brown said. "Part of that is refusing to simply vote for a person simply because they have an "R" after their name. We cannot accept being marginalized when we're one of the key voting blocs for the Republican Party. We will not accept being marginalized."

For those who subscribe to Brown's point of view, Connelly's take on the faith-outreach job description is severely lacking. Assuming that religious people, as long as they vote, will support Republicans ignores a changing political reality. These voters won't likely turn to Democrats, but further fracturing in the GOP could lead to a rise in ultra-conservative, third-party players who could capitalize on the religious vote. Brown told National Journal that if the party were to ever change its stance and support same-sex marriage, it would cease to exist.

"I don't think folks understand how deeply rooted and how passionate marriage and pro-life Republicans are," he said. "And our No. 1 allegiance, especially as people of faith, as Christians, is not to any party. It's to the truth. And if the party abandons the truth, then you'll see folks abandoning the party."

Encouraging religious people to get to the polls to "vote biblical values" may not prove sustainable in the long run. It also conflicts with other aspects of the RNC's 2012 postmortem. Among the report's 219 suggestions, one of the biggest takeaways was a recommended $10 million marketing campaign aimed at women, gay, and minority voters. Fashioning the party as more welcoming to these voting blocs directly collides with the goal of keeping religious conservatives actively in the GOP fold. How the party integrates those dual ambitions may play an instrumental role in its future.