The Evangelical Play Today

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Back in the day–the day being, oh, the 1980s and 1990s–the religious right flew under the radar screen, mustering white evangelicals for this or that candidate in a stealthy way, at least in those places where non-evangelicals were thick on the ground. That changed during the George W. Bush regime, as religious right leaders stepped out of the shadows to make their electoral preferences public, and white evangelicals emerged as a voting bloc tracked by pollsters and followed by political reporters and pundits.

It didn’t work out so well. The 2006 Republican crack-up was in part due to a sense that the GOP had tied itself too closely to the white evangelical agenda–that evangelical religion had gotten out of hand politically. Remember Jesus Camp?

And so, it’s back to the stealth approach. Evangelicals now sail under Tea Party colors. Iowa, land of “social conservatives,” is downplayed. Mike Huckabee, the manifestly evangelical, improbably extrudes himself from the GOP presidential race he was leading.

But it’s hard to pretend that the voting bloc isn’t still there. Ralph Reed emerges at the head of an organization supposedly devoted to merging social and economic conservatives, yet his Faith and Freedom Coalition is treated as merely the latest manifestation of the religious right. Texas Gov. Rick Perry joins with the notoriously homophobic American Family Association to sponsor an “apolitical Christian Prayer Service.”

And with the Republican establishment coalescing around Mitt Romney, it’s going to be very hard for the other presidential wannabes not to play the Mormon card. Don’t look for that in tonight’s debate in New Hampshire. Like the rest of New England, the Granite State takes a dim view of politics by invidious religious distinction. But soon, soon…