Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Pat and Rudy, perfect together

What better way to honor the old adage, about how politics makes strange bedfellows, than to ponder this morning's marriage of Pat Robertson and Rudy Giuliani?

You heard right: The founder of the Christian Coalition, an inveterate foe of gays, abortion, and sinful living, has decided to endorse the guy who has defended gays, defended abortion, and squired three wives. Yes, the longtime religious right leader who once warned on TV that a Florida gay pride parade would trigger earthquakes and tornadoes ("I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you") has decided to endorse the guy who has repeatedly marched in Manhattan gay pride parades.

And yes, the defender of the faith, who once intimated on his radio show that 9/11 was God's way of punishing America for its sins ("We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government, and then we say, 'why does this happen?' Why it's happening is, God almighty is lifting his protection from us"), has opted to support the guy who presided over the culturally diverse city that was hit on 9/11.

But, in some respects, the Robertson endorsement makes perfect sense. He and Giuliani are war-on-terror hawks who see America as engaged in an apocalyptic struggle with radical Islamists; indeed, many Christian conservatives believe that this us-versus-them paradigm trumps any disagreements over the social issues. Robertson and Giuliani also bond on the importance of Israel.

There's also another important factor: Robertson has long been known as one of the more pragmatic Christian right leaders, someone who focuses on candidate electability even at the expense of prioritizing the movement's pet issues. This endorsement appears to reflect his conclusion that Giuliani, whatever his flaws, is more likely than this GOP rivals to win the general election.

The son of a congressman, Robertson has long had an instinct for the compromises of mainstream politics. He once told National Public Radio that "in terms of (making gains through) politics, it's incremental. You give a little bit and a little bit more...Politics is the give and take of a vast nation, and anybody who is absolute in their view of politics just doesn't know how the game is played."

I saw this instinct first-hand back in 2000, when Robertson was backing George W. Bush. Five weeks before the election, the Food and Drug Administrated ruled that the abortion pill could be legally marketed nationwide. Some Christian conservatives wanted Bush, an abortion foe, to loudly denounce the ruling. But Robertson didn't utter a peep about the pill, and he was pleased when Bush barely said a word. I interviewed Robertson during this episode, and asked why he had stayed silent about such a major moral issue. He explained that most Americans supported the abortion pill; therefore, he didn't want to talk about an issue that might imperil Bush's chances of winning: "If Bush gets 'off message' - and this issue would take him way off message - he'd be talking about something which, frankly, the vast majority of people don't think is a big deal...I'd just like to get (him) elected."

The question here is, can Pat Robertson help Giuliani get elected? Notwithstanding his status as a pillar of the religious right dating back several decades, Robertson is not exactly universally renowned within the movement. Many are uncomfortable with his frequent invocations of a wrathful God (who, in Robertson's view, not only triggered 9/11, but also may have prompted Israeli leader Ariel Sharon's fatal illness).

Michael Cromartie, director of an evangelical studies project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told NPR last year: "I don't know a religious conservative leader - Protestant, Catholic or Jewish - who has not run out of patience with Mr. Robertson's comments. It is really dangerous when religious leaders come out and try to tell us exactly what God is up to. This is inappropriate theologically, as a Christian leader."

In other words, the Robertson endorsement might not mean much to the grassroots Christian conservatives in the key early primary state of South Carolina, where Giuliani is locked in a struggle with Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson. Indeed, he has plenty of competition in the endorsement game. Bob Jones III, chancellor of the Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University, has signed up with Romney (as has Paul Weyrich, a founder of Moral Majority, one of the first groups in the movement); meanwhile, Sam Brownback, the ex-candidate and friend of the religious right, has just endorsed John McCain.

The failure to coalesce around one candidate demonstrates the unusual fluidity of the Republican race. One can argue that Robertson's endorsement trumps the others, simply on the basis of his fame and prominence, but the Robertson baggage may weigh heavily in the longer run.

If Rudy wins the nomination, here's something that independent swing voters might want to know: Does the candidate agree with his Christian conservative patron's view that Islam is "a bloody, brutal type of religion," and that America must be prepared to wage "a holy war between Islam and Christianity?"