Washington — When Republican Gov. Mike Pence, of Indiana, drew heavy political fire for signing legislation that was characterized as legitimizing discrimination against homosexuals, a number of Republican presidential contenders leapt to his defense, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The support wasn’t enough.
Early last week, Pence announced he would move to revise the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to ensure it did not condone anti-gay behavior in the name of religious belief. And when the Arkansas Legislature delivered a similar bill to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, he said he wouldn’t sign it — never mind that days earlier, he had said he would and that 20 other states (including Louisiana) and the federal government (under Democratic President Bill Clinton) have enacted similar laws. Both states revised their legislation.
The unfolding drama illustrates both the potency of religion-centric issues within the Republican Party and the dangers politicians face when catering to those voters whose politics are strongly influenced by their faith — which, for Republicans, means the white Christian evangelicals who account for between a third and a half of the party’s support.
How skillfully Republican candidates navigate the minefield of politics and religion will play a key role in who wins the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 — and, potentially, in the nominee’s fate in the general election against a Democrat.
Few, if any, of the other potential Republican contenders have courted evangelicals as assiduously as Jindal.
“Bobby Jindal is certainly speaking the language of evangelicalism,” said Darren Dochuk, a history professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the 2011 book “From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.”
“Jindal has unquestionably gone out of his way to pander to the religious right,” said Sarah Posner, a freelance journalist who focuses on religion and politics and who wrote “God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters,” a 2008 book about “prosperity preachers” and their politics.
Jindal, like most of the other potential Republican contenders, has not formally announced he will run for president, but he has traveled repeatedly to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — states with early nominating contests — and has made speeches around the country on national and international issues.
Only U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, has officially declared he’s a candidate. Jindal, barred from a third term as governor, has said he is “thinking and praying” about his decision, to be revealed after the June 11 conclusion of the upcoming legislative session in Louisiana.
More than a year ago, Jindal delivered a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California on religious liberty, the subject at the heart of the Indiana controversy; it’s one of the core concerns of evangelicals, along with opposition to abortion and to same-sex marriage. Jindal decried what he said is a liberal assault on religious liberty and praised the central role of faith in the American experience.
In May, Jindal spoke in Virginia at Liberty University, founded by the late fundamentalist icon Jerry Falwell; the night before the speech, he met privately with evangelical pastors from Iowa and South Carolina. In June, he spoke in Washington to the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a group that seeks to engage evangelicals in grass-roots politics.
Jindal met with pastors in Iowa in January and March and also with pastors in South Carolina last month, all at events sponsored by evangelical activist David Lane. Jindal is scheduled to travel to Israel this fall on a trip with the Family Research Council, whose evangelical president, Tony Perkins, is a Liberty University alumnus, former Louisiana state representative and longtime Jindal ally.
On Thursday, Jindal told conservative Iowa talk-show host Steve Deace that liberals “are trying to silence traditional Christian beliefs.”
“The left wants to make America secular,” he said. “They want God out of the public square.”
And, Jindal said, “The one group that is being discriminated against is evangelical Christians.”
But Jindal delivered his highest-profile pitch to the religious right in January in Baton Rouge, where he called for a national spiritual revival at “The Response” prayer rally and declared, “Our God wins!”
Even before his headlining appearance, the event generated controversy because of the association of its sponsor, the fundamentalist American Family Association, with anti-gay marriage views.
At the rally, Jindal, 43, recounted his own spiritual journey from a Hindu childhood — he is the Louisiana-born son of immigrants from India — to conversion to Christianity in high school to adoption of Roman Catholicism in college; he calls himself an evangelical Catholic. Evangelicals are self-identified in opinion polls, but Posner and Dochuk say they are defined by being “born again” in a personal experience of salvation through Jesus Christ. A majority of evangelicals are white, and they overwhelmingly vote Republican.
Their political clout is significant in Iowa, where they made up three-fifths of the Republican voters participating in the 2012 presidential nominating caucuses. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, a candidate identified with the Christian right, narrowly finished first in those caucuses; the 2008 winner was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who also is a Baptist minister; and another born-again standard-bearer, TV evangelist Pat Robertson, won in 1996.
Iowa goes first in the nominating process — on Feb. 1 in 2016 — and draws outsized attention from candidates as a result.
For Jindal, who is trailing badly in opinion polls about the potential Republican field, his best bet may be to rally to a strong finish in Iowa, with hopes of building on that momentum in South Carolina, another early deciding state with a sizable born-again vote.
But Jindal does not have the evangelical lane to himself among Republicans making candidate-like noises.
“Huckabee and Santorum together are going to occupy the bulk of that space, at least in the early rounds,” said Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report. “They are known commodities. They’ve demonstrated strength with that community.”
And there are additional evangelical-friendly contenders, including retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Also, Cruz picked Liberty University to stage his formal announcement, invoking his father’s born-again experience and tailoring much of his speech to evangelicals.
“There are too many Ted Cruzes in the race who can win the hearts and speak the language of grass-roots evangelicals,” Dorchuk said.
In 2008 and 2012, evangelical activists tried without success to unify their ranks behind one candidate. They are trying again this year — Perkins reportedly among them — but they haven’t pulled it off yet.
Even “the quote-unquote establishment candidates” — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida — enjoy appeal to evangelicals, Posner said.
Bush is a Catholic convert with his own faith story to tell, and he scored points with the Christian right in the Terri Schiavo case, acting as governor to keep her alive in a persistent vegetative state despite her husband’s wishes. Walker is the son of a Baptist preacher. Rubio is a Catholic who attends a Southern Baptist church in Florida. All three joined in the rush of support for the Indiana law.
“Because there are crossover candidates who appeal to both camps, I think that is going to make it even harder this election cycle for the kind of pure religious-right candidate to emerge,” Posner said. And that crossover appeal is a proven formula, applied by George W. Bush in his 2000 march to the White House.
By contrast, the evangelical brand alone is not a sure winner, even among Republicans. Robertson, Huckabee and Santorum all lost out to more centrist nominees. A major hurdle is New Hampshire, second on the schedule, a less-conservative state with a Republican primary open to independents. Down the road are more blue and purple states where evangelicals struggle to make an impact.
“It’s not a real expansive group. It’s significant but not elastic,” Cook said.
“If you’re like Jindal and you think the way to the nomination is through evangelicals — again, there are so many people competing for that vote, and that’s generally not the bloc that produces the nominee anyway,” said Kyle Kondik, of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Jindal’s supporters say he is “a full-spectrum conservative,” not a one-note candidate. But he’s not from the establishment — he swipes at the party organization and Republicans in Congress — and likely will lag well behind Bush and other better-known contenders in fundraising.
Yet the minefield could be treacherous for any would-be Republican nominee who courts the religious right, as the debate over the Indiana law showed, Posner and Dorchuk say. The world — even the traditionally Republican world — is changing: The Republican mayor of Indianapolis called for revision of the Indiana legislation; among those opposing the Arkansas law were the CEO of Wal-Mart, which is headquartered in the state, and Gov. Hutchinson’s own son, Seth.
Polls show majority support nationwide for same-sex marriage, an issue central to the religious-liberty dispute. Younger voters are more tolerant of the unions than older voters.
“These candidates have to be careful not to come across as too extreme, or too forceful, in their evangelical politics,” Dorchuk said. “That could come at the cost of an emerging Republican Party, young Republicans, who are more in the political center.”
Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog.