On a Thursday morning in early September, a handful of Louisiana pastors gathered at a Baptist church on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain to meet with Chad Connelly, the GOP’s first-ever director of faith engagement. The former head of the South Carolina Republican Party, Connelly was tapped by the Republican National Committee (RNC) in June of last year to be the party’s new religious ambassador. His job is to travel the country with a sales pitch, of sorts. “I’m there to tell them that voting isn’t political, it’s spiritual,” he says. “I ask them to preach biblical values from the pulpit so the people in the pews can go vote those values.”
In Louisiana, where I reached him by phone, Connelly was juggling both a long and a short game. His immediate task was to urge pastors to shepherd their flocks to the polls in the upcoming midterm election, when incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu faces a challenge from a Republican congressman, Bill Cassidy. Over the past few months, Connelly says he’s brought the GOP Faith initiative’s message to 29 states, but competitive Senate races merit extra attention; the September trip was Connelly’s sixth visit to the Pelican State. But he’s also sowing seeds for the 2016 presidential election by assuring religious leaders—primarily evangelical Christian pastors—that the GOP isn’t taking their support for granted.
The Southern Baptist Connelly insists that large numbers of Christian voters are politically unengaged—either unregistered or so disillusioned with the GOP that they don’t see a point in going to the polls on election day. His strategy is top-down: he’s asking pastors to tell churchgoers that political participation is a spiritual matter. “If we can get those people to vote their values, that’s a game-changer,” he says. “That’s why I ask pastors to host voter registration drives, and to start voicing their political concerns from the pulpit.”
The GOP Faith initiative, a nine-person team led by Connelly, was born out of the Republican introspection that followed Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential defeat. The exit polls painted a bleak picture for Republican strategists: Barack Obama won thanks to a young and diverse coalition, while Romney’s supporters were older and far more racially homogenous. A 2013 RNC report dedicated to revamping the GOP’s strategy warned that Republicans “have comfortably remained the party of Reagan without figuring out what comes next.” The bulk of its recommendations had to do with engaging voters of color, low-income voters, young voters, and women. Yet in the report, religious voters’ concerns were barely a footnote. The idea of an outreach director for religious groups within the Republican Party appeared almost in passing, on page 79 of the 100-page document.
Still, Connelly came on board four months later. Even amid the wider demographic realities, he believes reassuring values voters, long a dependable pillar of the GOP base, is crucial. “We’ve been so focused on getting our message out to new folks that we’ve forgotten to engage with people of faith, who are really the bedrock of our party,” Connelly says. By meeting with pastors, he’s hoping to breathe new political vigor into a group that—he says—is increasingly marginalized in American public life. “I talk to so many of these religious leaders who say, we feel neglected, we don’t know what we can preach, and we don’t know if it’ll matter,” he says. “So they’re not telling Christians to go vote Biblical values in the way that they used to. I want to change that.”
THE GOP FAITH PROJECT isn’t reinventing the wheel. Ties between evangelical Protestant religious leaders and the Republican Party are long and deep, stretching back three decades to the 1980 election, when evangelical mobilization helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. The difference is that now the GOP is taking responsibility for maintaining this storied relationship, rather than relying on independent evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family or the Christian Coalition.
The GOP’s decision to step into this role could mean one of two things. The Christian Right’s influence has been on the wane in Washington over the past few years, and the decision to task a Republican party operative with outreach to pastors could be a sign that the GOP no longer trusts evangelical leaders to do this work on their own. But it could also signal that the party is worried about losing touch with its evangelical base. The GOP Faith outreach initiative’s goals are, on one level, rhetorical—maintaining the status quo by reassuring evangelical Christians that they remain integral to the party’s future. Connelly’s second aim—marshaling truly disengaged GOP supporters into voting booths in November—will be more of a challenge.
There is little evidence that the evangelical voters who make up the party’s base are deliberately sitting out elections. Questions about whether conservative Christians would withhold their votes first emerged in 2008, when John McCain, a longtime critic of the Christian Right, received the Republican presidential nomination. Similar concerns resurfaced in 2012 with the rise of Mitt Romney, a Mormon, as the GOP frontrunner.
Despite their purported reservations, evangelicals turned out in large numbers in both elections. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of white evangelical Protestants voted for McCain in 2008, and almost 79 percent of white evangelicals cast their vote for Romney—the same margin of support that George W. Bush received in 2004. Moreover, white evangelicals’ share of the electorate remained constant at 21-23 percent. According to a September poll from the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants identify with the Republican Party, a number that hasn’t budged since 2008. “This is not a group that’s tuned out politically,” says Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew. “And most of their support goes to the Republican Party.”
Convincing unengaged white evangelicals to get involved in the political process will be a harder sell. Corwin Smidt, a professor of political science at Calvin College, says that a slice of every demographic group is composed of people who simply aren’t interested in politics, and evangelicals are no exception. White evangelical Protestants turn out at roughly the same rates as other groups. In the past three presidential cycles, nearly 75 percent of white evangelical adults reported that they voted. In Smidt’s view, it will take more than a pastoral plea to get the remaining 25 percent involved—at least, in numbers that could swing an election. “I think it’s a strategy that could work on the margins, maybe in a close Senate race where you need to mobilize a few thousand extra people,” he says. “But in something like a presidential race, I just don’t see white evangelicals voting at a significantly higher level. Let’s just say it’s not low-hanging fruit.”
If white evangelicals show no sign of straying, the growing diversity of evangelical Christianity provides both an opportunity and a challenge for Republican strategists like Connelly. Latinos—a traditionally Catholic constituency—are increasingly identifying as Protestants, with a sizeable number claiming the mantle of “born-again” or evangelical Christians. “Evangelicalism is becoming less white and southern, more ethnically diverse and urban,” says Brian Steensland, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. “I think with this mobilization effort, Republicans are reading the tea leaves and trying to engage with a more diverse base of evangelicals.”
Latino Protestants tend to side with the GOP on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, but they don’t reliably support Republican candidates, nor do they turn out as reliably as white evangelical Protestants. In 2004, 54 percent of Latino Protestants cast their votes for George W. Bush, but majorities swung back to the Democratic candidate, Obama, in 2008 and 2012. There’s certainly room for GOP outreach among this constituency: According to a new survey (which I consulted on) from the Public Religion Research Institute, half of Hispanic Protestants say they did not vote in the 2012 election.
But an appeal to traditional culture war issues isn’t a guarantee of success. In the same survey, 30 percent of Hispanic Protestants reported that the most important issue for their 2014 vote was immigration, while fewer than 1-in-10 said the same of same-sex marriage or abortion. “I can’t see the Republicans picking up large numbers of Latino Protestants without making a serious effort to reform their stance on immigration,” Smidt says.
That won’t stop Connelly from trying. A video posted on GOP Faith’s website in August features the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, declaring that Hispanic Christians will be a “firewall of righteousness and justice and the preservers of our Judeo-Christian values system.” Connelly wants to shore up support from Latino Protestants with conservative views on same-sex marriage and abortion. “Hispanic Americans are deeply values-oriented people,” Connelly says. “Making sure they know they have a home in the Republican Party—that’s going to be a huge part of our outreach effort.”
THE GOP FAITH ENGAGEMENT project is relying almost exclusively on pastors to get the word out, so Connelly spends his days talking up the spiritual value of political action. Part of the challenge, he says, is that religious leaders are confused about whether they’re even allowed to preach about politics. Churches, as tax-exempt organizations, are forbidden from endorsing political candidates. “A lot of pastors have been intimidated into thinking that means they can’t preach about the issues of the day,” Connelly says.
By focusing on voter registration and pastor engagement, Connelly is drawing a leaf from a venerable playbook. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority famously coordinated church voter registration drives and distributed voter guides, urging evangelicals to vote against the past decade’s tidal wave of social change. Leading up to the 1980 presidential election, the guides and drives were tacit messages to vote for the conservative candidate Ronald Reagan and against the liberal Jimmy Carter. That election cycle, Falwell claimed to have registered four million evangelicals to vote, according to Dan Williams, an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia. “He was doing precisely the same kind of work that Connelly and the GOP Faith initiative are setting out to do, and he was wildly successful.”
The question is whether the strategy that propelled Reagan into the White House can help the Republicans take the Senate in 2014—or the White House in 2016. Williams warns that evangelical Christians today, especially younger evangelicals, may not be as hungry for political engagement as they were in the 1980s. If Connelly is following a script from another era, his overtures run the risk of sounding tone-deaf. Messages that resonated in the 1980s aren’t likely to have the same meaning for younger evangelicals, who don’t have the same cultural perspective. “There was a real sense when Reagan was emerging that the country was changing in a profound and disturbing way but that people of faith could turn the country around,” Williams says. “Evangelicals who are young today don’t have that frame of reference. They’ve grown up in a pluralistic society and they’re comfortable, for the most part, with the idea that they’re a minority.”
Pastors, too, may have lost some of their appetite for overt political discourse. Corwin Smidt conducted surveys of white evangelical and mainline Protestant clergy in 1989, 2001, and 2009, finding that political participation declined in the intervening decades. Smidt chalks this up to pastors’ fear of dividing their congregations by invoking political issues, not fear of retribution from the IRS. He says that pastors who use religious language to promote a political agenda run the risk of alienating churchgoers who might have a different point of view. According to the most recent wave of his survey, a slim majority (53 percent) of evangelical pastors approve of taking a stand on a political issue while preaching, while only 1-in-10 say it’s their role to endorse a candidate from the pulpit.
Connelly contends that his strategy isn’t to convince clergy to infuse their sermons with partisan talking points. Rather, he wants pastors to see voting as a spiritual practice and to bring that message to their flock. The stakes, for him, are higher than any individual political contest. In his view, evangelical engagement is a crucial facet of the campaign to reclaim religion’s place at the center of American public life. Telling them that they are vital to the GOP’s success is, more than anything, what he believes will energize evangelicals who feel beleaguered.
Driving away from the pastors’ meeting in Louisiana, Connelly was optimistic about his chances. Pastors are eager to be taken seriously again, he says. When he makes his pitch, he emphasizes that they are the bedrock of GOP Faith—he’s only the messenger. Religious leaders have to take up the call to galvanize their communities, and so far, he says, they’ve responded enthusiastically. “I think they’re going to realize that the GOP’s the party that’s going to keep faith alive,” he says.
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a freelance writer based in Chicago and a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.