Judging by his lackluster performance, Scott Walker’s decision to end his presidential campaign was not a loss to the art of political warfare. A speaker for whom the word boring was invented, at best Walker aspired to be bland. But at the start of the current silly season, Walker was considered a formidable candidate, if not the one to beat. Instead, he end up an also-ran five months before the first vote was even cast.
Given the exercise in chaos theory that is the current Republican primary, Walker’s exit can’t be all that surprising. But what is surprising is that Walker was so swiftly abandoned by the people whose support he had staked his candidacy on: religious conservatives. Even more surprising is who they abandoned him for: Donald Trump (a three-time married gambling mogul), Ben Carson (a Seventh-Day Adventist) and Carly Fiorina (a nondenominational Christian who doesn’t seem to go to church).
As recently as July, Walker was the front-runner among Iowan evangelicals, whose support is crucial in the state’s GOP caucuses. His status as the favorite was easy to understand: Walker is the governor in a neighboring state, he’s the son of a Baptist preacher, and he’s reliably homophobic.
But none of that matters to the religious right. They want red-meat rhetoric. More than that, they want an outsider, on the grounds that someone with no experience in politics will turn Washington upside down for a change. If that means going with a candidate that violates their moral beliefs — well, hey, it’s politics after all.
Walker had neither of the two qualities that evangelicals are looking for. He has held political office since he’s been 24. He was not as vocal as the bottom-rung candidates, like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, or the bottom-feeders, like Ted Cruz. In fact, he was wishy-washy. He tried to send a message that he was a compassionate conservative, while at the same time fundraising by pledging to pass a Constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. Whatever you might say about Santorum, Huckabee and Cruz, you would never accuse them of trying to have it both ways.
What does it say about the religious right that they are willing to pass judgment on everyone except the people who say what they want to hear? It seems that principles are far from immutable. In fact, they are quite flexible.
Consider the case of Trump. If ever there was a candidate whose lifestyle would seem anathema to religious conservatives, it would have to be him. But in fact, evangelicals love him. And Trump has been courting them for years, leaving them starstruck by his attention.
The same for Carson. As a Seventh-Day Adventist, Carson is suspect to many hard-core Christian leaders. In fact, he was once bounced from a Christian conference by organizers who consider his religion unorthodox. But Carson has been gaining steam among Iowan evangelicals, who see him as one of their own, at least culturally.
As for Fiorina, her emergence as a top-tier candidate despite a flurry of falsehoods at the last debate is a testament to the mainstream media’s reflexive desire to view everything as a horse-race. But Fiorina has been assiduously courting religious conservatives for months now. The fact that she professes to love God without stepping foot in a church regularly doesn’t seem to bother evangelicals one little bit.
There is precedent for this political hypocrisy. Ronald Reason was the first presidential nominee to have been divorced, which was still a bit of a scandal in 1980. A churchgoer, Reagan was not. But for conservative Christians he was the new Messiah. He said what evangelicals wanted to hear. After 35 years, nothing seems to have changed.