How Many Evangelicals Actually Lead?

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"Conservative Christian leaders." That's the phrase you can find in most of the accounts of a particular news story from this weekend. As in "Conservative Christian leaders endorse Rick Santorum."

In cases you missed it, there was a meeting in Texas of a group of politically and religiously conservative organization leaders and businessfolk who would like to derail the Romney express. They settled on Santorum as their best shot.

But beyond the politics, this is an unusual opportunity to see whether the people the media reports usually describe as "conservative Christian leaders" are actual leaders. No question that some of the attendees at the weekend event were well-known spokesmen. And that they get quoted plenty.

But how many people do they actually lead?

Somebody once said (maybe Robert Heinlein?) that an effective and simple way to test a theory is to see if you can win money gambling on its predictions. Not only is this an easy way to test your theory's power, it's an unusually public assessment. Everybody involved in the bet knows the results.

What the Christian leaders did this past weekend is something similar. They've set up an unusually public and specific test of their own effectiveness as leaders.

The power of the Religious Right has more often been used as a threat. If a particular politician refuses to take a particular position, these leaders say, they will mobilize their followers in opposition. For the Republicans, the threat has been plenty effective in recent years.

(That's not a knock in any way on these Christian political religionists. This is how American politics works. The Religious Left only wishes it had been as effective. For a long time, labor unions wielded a similar power over the Democrats.)

But the political leaders of the Religious Right have largely avoided tests of their power.

Tests, of course, include by necessity the risk of failure. How often can you recall conservative Christian leaders calling for their followers to change their behaviors? Because that's the test of true leadership. The guy at the front of the parade isn't a leader. Everybody is headed that way, anyhow.

Here's an example of real leadership: Oprah Winfrey's book club. By the millions, Oprah's followers spent actual money and actual time reading books that most of them would never have otherwise touched in their lifetimes. When Oprah told them to change their behavior, they did it.

On the other hand, there's the example of the South Baptist Convention's call for its members to boycott Disney. This happened back in the 1990s, triggered by the Disney company's decision to market to gays and to offer insurance benefits to domestic partners of gay employees. The SBC got a lot of headlines out of its call for a boycott. I never saw any indication that it had a significant effect on people spending money on Disney vacations or products. Even among members of SBC churches.

Back before the last presidential cycle, friend and former colleague Christine Wicker authored a book titled The Fall of the Evangelical Nation. Her premise was that the headlines about the size and significance of evangelical Christianity in America were overblown. Which also meant that the claims of political power from the Religious Right were likewise overstated.

She tracked a series of statistics from polls and church participation figures and came up with a plausible estimate of the number of Americans whose beliefs and -- more importantly -- behaviors put them unambiguously in the evangelical camp: seven percent. Which ain't chopped liver but isn't exactly a rolling political tide. Even if you toss in the Catholic conservatives who have huge theological differences but share social and political positions, there's an open question about how much real political power can be marshaled.

And even if there is a large pot of voters to be won, are the people generally recognized as leaders able to bring that pot to a particular candidate?

The designated spokesman for the weekend event was Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. He explained that these folks were trying to avoid what happened four years ago, when they failed to coalesce around one candidate and watched with something less than satisfaction as John McCain took the nomination.

Attendees reported at the weekend event included Gary Bauer, president of American Values in Washington, Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi, San Antonio televangelist John Hagee and conservative Catholic leader Deal Hudson.

The SBC was represented by Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The event was held on a Texas ranch owned by H. Paul Pressler, a Houston attorney and former judge who is better known in religious circles as a leader in the conservative takeover of the SBC that started in the 1980s.

These are all big names in the world of politically and theologically conservative Christianity. Mitt Romney seems on course to get the nomination. But he's not managed to draw more than half the GOP in any primary tally. The next actual vote is this weekend's South Carolina primary, where demographics should dictate that the power of Christian conservatives will be significantly greater than many other states.

So will the call from these putative leaders jiggle the needle? Will people choose to change their votes? Will Santorum get enough support to push him farther in the primary battle?

Wanna bet?

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