The Evangelicals' New Clothes

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(l. to r.): Patti Longmire / AP; Jon Way / AP

James Dobson (left) and Mike Huckabee (right).

So only after Fred and Rudy and Mitt have dropped out, and McCain has all but mathematically sealed the G.O.P. nomination, does Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson come out and endorse Mike Huckabee as "our best remaining choice for President of the United States," now that it can't possibly make a difference. Given how this season has unfolded, there is something beautifully appropriate about that.

Back at the end of September, after Dobson and his disciples had their private meeting to publicly threaten a third party run if the G.O.P. went with a social liberal like Giuliani, I asked Richard Land, the Southern Baptists' political ambassador, what was the problem with Huckabee, since Land understands these weather systems better than most.

Here was a candidate that you would have thought the social conservative leadership could embrace without reservation, a fresh, appealing, Southern Baptist preacher-pol who didn't believe in evolution, whose wife (by covenant marriage, no less) has slept under bridges with homeless people, and who was more consistently pro-life than anyone in the field. So what was Paul Weyrich doing backing Romney and Pat Robertson endorsing Rudy and the National Right to Life committee supporting Thompson? "I've known Mike a long time," said Land. "I think Mike would be a fine President. But he's the one who has to close that deal. He has to convince significant numbers of Americans that he'd be a fine President and that he can beat Hillary Clinton."

In other words, he was on his own, as far as the religious right leaders were concerned (Don Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, being an exception.) And that's why what has happened in the months since has exposed many of those same leaders, once and for all, as emperors with no clothes.

You have to give the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins credit for making the best of a bad situation. After the results were in on Super Tuesday, he sent his conservative troops an e-mail celebrating "The Value of the Values Voter," in which he tries to explain why a night that sealed McCain's victory was nonetheless a victory for those who were trying to stop McCain at all costs. "Despite the inclement weather and overwhelming odds, social conservatives continue to turn out in droves to show both parties that they are still active, still potent, and a political force ignored only at the candidates' peril."

And, one might add, at their supposed leaders' peril as well. McCain actually got nearly as many evangelical votes as Huckabee and Romney. All through this race, even before Huckabee soared out of Iowa, it was clear that those who claim to speak for the flock weren't listening very well. That McCain and Huckabee are the last men standing is just the latest proof — since the conservative commentariat was uniquely united in its antipathy to both.

It seems to me that if you want to exercise power in a political party, you have to show that you have some juice, that you can genuinely claim to speak for thousands or millions of voters. That means that whether your candidate wins or loses in the end may not matter as much as WHEN you first back that candidate.

The best thing that can happen is that you win by winning: You pick a dark horse who shares your values, then you mobilize your base, get them to the caucuses and primary polls, and when victory comes you can plausibly claim he couldn't have done it without you. Had the religious right leaders fallen in behind Huckabee early on, when he was a late-night joke, they actually might have demonstrated their clout.

The next best scenario is that you win by losing — i.e., you endorse a candidate who genuinely shares your principles and work hard for him; if the party ignores you and picks someone like Rudy who goes on to lose next November, you get to say "see, that's what happens when you try to do this without us." And having invested your principles, you have now the added dividend that in future races candidates will know they can't afford to ignore you.

But the worst scenario is to expose yourself as just another cynical pol. Any success Huckabee has had, he obviously had without their help — in fact, in spite of it — thereby exposing just how little clout, judgment or principle they have.

Those who claim to be in public life to promote and defend certain values can least afford to look craven. We may expect that from the every-man-for-himself plutocrats; but the virtuecrats are supposed to believe in something. So when Robertson et al ignored the conspicuous apostasies of Rudy and, in his earlier more liberal life, Romney, in order to jump on the bandwagon, they exposed a much less lofty agenda: they just liked their seat at the table, they didn't want to lose, and they didn't seem to realize that by signing on with a front-runner, they were following, not leading; demonstrating weakness, not strength.

What this plot twist has really exposed is that the shepherds have no sheep. You get the sense that rank-and-file evangelicals are just as sick of their own "leaders" as they are of the political arena in general. This actually represents a return to normal: evangelicals have historically been suspicious of getting too deeply involved in worldly matters, preferring a focus on individual salvation. So their willingness to vote their hearts with Huck and leave the rest to the Lord is perfectly normal behavior.

And Richard Land, for one, understands this, which may be one reason he is careful not to explicitly endorse candidates, even though you don't exactly need a hearing aid to know whom he likes. Of the infamous characterization of evangelical voters as "poor, uneducated and easily led," he says, "Evangelicals are actually slightly wealthier than the general public, better educated. And they are about as easy to lead as a herd of tomcats."

"Evangelical voters are a lot like American voters," he said wryly. "They have a funny way of deciding for themselves who to vote for. Don't make the mistake of equating the impact of a Richard Land or a Dobson with the head of the AFL-CIO. We don't have that kind of authority, don't aspire to it and the people in the movement wouldn't allow it anyway. Only a candidate can deliver the voters to himself. And it is social conservative voters who'll decide the person for whom they're going to vote in the primary and general election."