America's aging class of socially conservative evangelical leaders finally gathered this weekend to pick a presidential candidate to rally around, and, crucially, to make each other feel important again. The 150 or so big-time fundies, including representatives from the Family Research Council, American Family Association, and Focus on the Family, ultimately chose Rick Santorum but came nowhere near a unanimous decision. Let's all congratulate these once-important gatekeepers: For the second straight presidential election, they've swooped in just in time to render themselves useless.
Evangelical leaders, who spend the four years between each presidential election talking trash about how they won't accept any Republican candidate without 100% impeccable credentials, kept quiet and didn't coordinate at all when endorsing time came around four years ago. Pat Robertson had endorsed twice-divorced pro-choice gay-friend-haver Rudy Giuliani early in the race for pure electability reasons. He thought early national polls, which Giuliani was leading based mostly on name recognition, were actually reliable predictors of who would ultimately win the party's nomination. That was stupid. Other big evangelical names, like James Dobson, awkwardly refused to join together and endorse the obvious social conservative candidate, Mike Huckabee. Part of that was over electability concerns, while others thought that Dobson et al. wouldn't want to help a burgeoning evangelical leader like Huckabee who might then take their place atop the hierarchy. Dobson would eventually get around to endorsing Huckabee, however — only after the nomination had been sealed by John McCain, whom evangelicals had long considered the worst human being in world history.
In our current election cycle, evangelicals' most despised candidate has been Mitt Romney. But, again, evangelical leaders have mostly wrung their hands in private while Romney glides to the nomination. They, like everyone, could tell that Romney was the only viable general election candidate and likely to win the nomination all along, so they shuffled their feet rather than back a less viable, but more socially conservative alternative. All of that until this weekend, of course, when they went through the motions with Rick Santorum to save face with their followers (and donors), well after it could have made a major impact on the race.
Who does backing Rick Santorum before the South Carolina primary help, anyway? Newt Gingrich is the only candidate who has a shot at stopping Romney there and thus prolonging the nomination fight. Whatever boost Santorum gets from these evangelicals will probably come at the expense of Gingrich's support base, giving Romney a wider margin of victory.
[Images of Pat Robertson and James Dobson via AP]