from McClatchy Newspapers on PostBulletin.com, Jan. 28, 2012:
Austin, Texas -- In the beginning, religious conservatives wanted a Republican presidential victor who'd be the answer to their prayers.
It hasn't turned out that way.
After 30 years of burgeoning political clout, the Christian right has struggled to find its place in an election season in which the economy has replaced the culture war.
Its backers can't agree on a GOP nominee, its issues aren't defining the debate and its national leaders seem to have lost influence over the flock.
How that plays out will affect fortunes not only of Republicans in their fight against President Barack Obama this fall but also may swing the outcome of many congressional races.
And their votes, which have been split among the GOP field, will be up for grabs again Tuesday in the Florida primary.
William Martin, a Rice University professor and author of a book about the rise of the religious right, "With God On Their Side," said evangelicals unhappy with their choices have to decide:
Will they remain political purists (and stay home in November if they don't like the nominee) or pursue a pragmatic course with a flawed candidate who can win the White House?
Martin said that in the end, he expects pragmatism to prevail.
"For Republicans in general and Christian conservatives who make up a large segment of Republicans, so many things have been subsumed under one overwhelming desire _ defeat Barack Obama."
Historically, opposition to abortion and gay marriage are top issues for religious motivated voters.
This year, some have sought to redefine the moral agenda to include economic issues, including taxes, debt and government spending. In political terms, the economy has become the new morality.
Rick Santorum, who won Iowa with considerable backing from Christian conservatives, has tried to link moral issues with economic success, citing studies that show children raised by married parents are less likely to live in poverty than kids in single-parent homes.
Before he dropped out of the presidential race last month, Rick Perry bridged religious faith and economic well-being at a prayer rally in South Carolina. That was modeled after his seven-hour revival in August in Houston that effectively kicked off the Texas governor's run for the White House.
"Father, give us hope in this country that through you, this country can prosper, that it can be healed," Perry prayed before several thousand at an arena in Greenville, S.C.
Among those supporting Perry in his presidential bid was Maggie Wright of Burleson, Texas, who traveled to South Carolina as a volunteer and attended the Greenville rally, where she touted Perry's credentials.
"He doesn't mind getting up publicly and reading out of that Bible," she said while a choir sang on stage in advance of Perry's appearance. "He knows that it's up to God whether our nation succeeds or not."
Wright nodded when Nancy Sabet, a Perry volunteer from Massachusetts, added something else to the religious agenda. "And he'll get America back working again," she said.
But if Perry's record made him a favorite among evangelicals, doubts about his electability after poor debate performances doomed his prospects.
"A lot of people expressed a lot of excitement when Governor Perry first got in the race," said University of Akron professor John Green, an expert on politics and religion. "They felt he fit their values very well. But then people would tell me, 'That was until he opened his mouth.'"
Likewise, if doubts about Newt Gingrich's marital infidelities and Mitt Romney's Mormonism have raised red flags among some evangelicals, their potential to defeat Obama has gained them support.
Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts, said the religious right has matured over the last 30 years and is more likely to back a slightly imperfect candidate with winning potential when it serves its interest.
"Evangelicals in 1980 were hoping that with the election of Ronald Reagan, they'd be able to enact a political agenda that would fit their framework. It simply did not happen," he said.
They've recognized, particularly on the domestic policy front, that movement is slow.
"So the compromise has been they simply want to have a seat at the table. They want to feel like they have some of their people who are in senior policy positions so that some of their agenda items get enforced," Lindsay said.
Settling on the best contender to topple Obama has not been easy among evangelicals, who've been divided among Santorum, Romney and Gingrich.
Tensions were evident this month at a meeting of Christian leaders on a ranch near Brenham, Texas, aimed at consolidating around a conservative alternative to Romney.
A majority voted to make Santorum the consensus candidate, but Gingrich backers left the meeting unwilling to fall in line and angry over comments by influential Christian leader James Dobson, who warned against having "a woman who was a man's mistress for eight years" as first lady should Gingrich win.
Last week, in a conference call to social conservatives, Dobson redoubled his support for Santorum. He said that if candidates "don't get around to talking about the Lord, about biblical principles and are determined to defend those things in the culture, then we ought to find another candidate."
Eventually, Republicans will pick a nominee, and several social conservative leaders said in interviews that they expect evangelicals will turn out and vote for him.
"Don't underestimate Barack Obama's unique ability to unite people around his opponent," said Richard Land, who heads the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
If it's Romney, whose Mormonism and mixed record on abortion issue might be a problem for some, the prospect of winning in November will cover a multitude of sins, Land said.
"As long as he's beating Obama, that salves a lot of their pain," he said.
Evangelicals have split their support among the Republican presidential candidates in the early contests.
In Florida, which has its primary Tuesday, evangelicals are expected to make up as much as a third of the turnout.