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Does the GOP Need the Evangelical Vote?

In 1957, when I was 13 years old, I went with my brother to the Billy Graham crusade at Madison Square Garden. We didn’t go because we were particularly interested in being ‘saved.’ We went because we wanted to see what all the hullabaloo was about.

A few years earlier, when we spent a Summer month in the Catoctin Mountains outside of Washington, D.C., there was a weekend prayer meeting with a blind preacher yelling about the return of Jesus and a band playing hillbilly music which was a lot of fun.

The Billy Graham meeting was very different. It was very slick, very well organized with all kinds of Graham-ites running up and down the aisles handing out brochures and asking everyone to chip in a few bucks. Graham had a big choir behind him on the stage and when he asked the audience to come forward to receive his blessing and accept Jesus, the crowd streamed down.

It was a very entertaining night.

The next time I heard about Graham was when he started showing up at the White House in the early 1970’s to help Richard Nixon build support for the Viet Nam War. This was the point when the Evangelical movement got involved with the GOP, a relationship which was cemented in the 1980’s when Evangelical TV personalities like Jerry Falwell not only started calling for their followers to vote for Reagan, but also infused all their religious sermonizing with direct appeals to the political alt-right.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that it was only the Republicans who consciously injected hard-core religious beliefs into politics and the political narrative. The Democrats did it too, although because their base included Catholics and Jews, the operative word wasn’t ‘religion,’ it was ‘faith.’

When Trump started putting together his first Presidential run, he got Michael Cohen to arrange a meeting at his office with a group of Evangelical ministers led by Jerry Falwell’s son. Trump said all the right things about abortion and other hot-button issues, and then the ministers formed a circle around him, held hands and blessed his campaign.

After the delegation left, Trump turned to Cohen and asked, “Do they really believe all that sh*t?”

Not only do Evangelicals believe all that sh*t, or at least pretend to believe all that sh*t, but as the GOP continues to splinter between MAGA on the one hand, and traditional conservatives on the other, the Evangelical population becomes more important, if only because you can get a message out to most of them every Sunday, notwithstanding the so-called division between Church and State.

But the ability to promote a political narrative among Evangelicals now goes beyond what’s said in the church. This weekend, all the 2024 GOP hopefuls will be speaking at the annual meeting of the Faith & Freedom Coalition (FFC), which along with CPAC, is the largest gathering in D.C. of conservative political activists every year.

The FFC is a clever marketing effort by Ralph Reed, who has been hanging around various right-wing lobbying groups in D.C. since the 1980’s, and if nothing else, probably owns the largest list of Evangelical political donors that can be found. He started off with Pat Robertson’s group, Christian Coalition, left the Coalition in 1997, dd some work for convicted scammer-lobbyist Jack Abramoff until the stench became too great, then founded the FFC in 2009.

The Evangelical voter, particularly the activist voter, is an important resource for anyone who seeks to emerge from the Republican primaries with enough votes to head the GOP slate in 2024. But the problem which the Evangelical movement has been unable to surmount is the extent to which this particular stripe of Protestant belief doesn’t represent so many votes in states which the GOP needs to win the whole shebang.

Evangelicals hold a majority of religious believers in states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Oklahoma, but so what? Those are red states no matter who heads the GOP ticket, in the same way that Evangelical votes don’t matter in the big, blue states like California and New York.

Orange Whining Head didn’t win in 2016 because of Evangelical support in the three states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin – whose electoral votes pushed him over the line. He won those three states a) because she who shall remain nameless never showed up, and b) because Libertarian voters switched to Trump.

As far as I’m concerned, you can take all the appeals to religion or faith, dump them in the sea next to those 40,000 lawyers and this would really be a good start.

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