Christian Right Split Over GOP

Religious conservative leaders are in disarray over the 2008 Republican field as deep divisions contribute to an unusually wide-open GOP race for the presidential nomination.

Faced with a Mormon from Massachusetts, a twice-divorced former New York mayor who backs abortion and gay rights, a senator who once called Robertson and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell the "forces of evil" and a Hollywood actor who rarely goes to church, the once powerful coalition of Christian conservative leaders appears to be splintering.

Just this week, three prominent Christian conservatives announced their support for different candidates.

Paul Weyrich, builder of the Moral Majority group, said he would back former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, while Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a former presidential candidate, endorsed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., today.

Perhaps most striking, however, is Robertson's decision to support former Mayor New York Rudolph Giuliani, a moderate on social issues who supports abortion rights.

In endorsing Giuliani, Robertson appears to be making a political calculation that Republicans need to emphasize national security and combating terrorism if they're going to keep the White House in 2008.

"To me the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the blood lust of Islamic terrorists," said Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition and Regent University who ran for president in 1988.

"It is my pleasure to announce my support for 'America's Mayor,' Rudy Giuliani, a proven leader who is not afraid of what lies ahead and who will cast a hopeful vision for all Americans," Robertson said.

Evangelical Leaders Split Decision

The Robertson endorsement came as a shock to one of Giuliani's presidential rivals.

"I am surprised," said former Tennessee senator and nomination hopeful Fred Thompson. "But I guess it's because I am easily surprised," he added.

Romney said the endorsement wouldn't help Giuliani win the backing of social conservatives.

"I don't think the Republican Party will choose a pro-choice, pro-gay civil union candidate to lead our party," he said.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, said the endorsements are further evidence that some of these conservative evangelical leaders "are more intoxicated with power than principle," he said.

"Frankly, it's a little disturbing, if not frightening, that some have forgotten the essence of what Jesus taught, and that is if you gain the whole world but lose your soul what does it profit you?" he said.

Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole's 1996 campaign, said the endorsement raises questions about Robertson's commitment to the issues he has long talked about — and about Giuliani's shifting rhetoric on social issues.

"It really looks like pandering on both fronts," Reed said. "Robertson is trying to become relevant again."

But other Republican strategists say the biggest loser out of the Robertson-Giuliani endorsement is Romney.

"It's a big blow to Romney ... Romney has really given a hard push to secure himself at the top of the values voters list," former White House spokesman Trent Duffy said on Politics Live on ABC News' digital channel.

Robertson's backing may give evangelicals the cover they need to vote for Giuliani, who is seen as a viable challenger to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Duffy said.

Endorsement Impact

Others suggested the endorsement may not have much influence.

"Robertson's actually not that popular among Christian evangelicals," said political science professor Ted Jelen, who studies and writes about religion and politics.

Jelen said Robertson may be trying to stick it to the movement's strict doctrinarians, like Falwell, who refused to support Robertson's 1988 presidential bid.

"Robertson, when he ran for president himself, was victimized by all of the doctrinal divisions," said Jelen. "He is a Southern Baptist, but he's also a charismatic who believes in speaking in tongues."

Robertson regularly makes controversial remarks on the Christian Broadcasting Network, which he founded.

"We have to recognize that Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant on domination of the world," he said on a June 12 edition of The 700 Club.

Still., Robertson's endorsement amounts to a conservative establishment stamp of approval for Giuliani, whose views and record on abortion and gay rights put him in direct conflict with Republican orthodoxy.

A candidate in favor of abortion rights hasn't received the Republican nomination since Gerald Ford ran in 1976.

Over the last three decades, the conservative movement has increasingly defined itself based on the so-called "culture wars," with the battle over the judiciary, and Roe vs. Wade, the landmark abortion decision by the Supreme Court, taking center stage.

Waning Power of Christian Right?

In the last decade, leaders of the conservative Christian political movement appeared to be masters of one of the most, if not the most, politically influential voting blocs in the nation.

With political mastermind Karl Rove cracking the whip, evangelical Christian voters turned out in droves to support George W. Bush, an avowed born-again Christian, propelling him to the White House and voting to reelect him in 2004, by 4-1.

However Bush's support among evangelicals has declined.

"Presidents Reagan and the Bushes, both father and son, have talked the talk, but really haven't walked the walk," Jelen said, noting evangelicals have yet to reverse the legalization of abortion or legalize school prayer and see a movement toward more rights for gays and lesbians.

While evangelicals are now less likely to identify themselves as members of the Republican Party, opting for the independent moniker instead, according to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center.

New Generation of Christian Leaders

Today, a new, younger generation of evangelical pastors are pushing the movement in a different direction, focusing on social justice, the environment and opposition to the Iraq War.

The old guard of the Christian Right have been unable to unify behind a single GOP presidential candidate.

It's an open question whether Robertson's endorsement will do more to help Giuliani's presidential campaign -- or to call into question Robertson's credibility among a substantial number of evangelical white Protestants, according to ABC Polling Director Gary Langer.

Giuliani runs about evenly with McCain and Thompson among evangelicals in the latest ABC/Post poll, while holding a 20-point lead among all other Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

Jelen said if the Republican Party nominates someone Christian evangelicals can't get behind, they may stay home.

"Most people don't realize that Rudy Giuliani is or was pro-life and that he dressed up like a Radio City Rockette," said Jelen.

"Once those ads start airing in South Carolina, it's going to start getting pretty ugly ... The really interesting question is whether Christian evangelicals will stay home or not?"