Those who watched the Republican debate Thursday night might have noticed the lack of religious content. The debate was about the economy for the most part. The economic downturn is what is on everyone's mind this week, and it could end up being the primary issue this election season. Two unsurprising questions involving religion were asked by the moderators from NBC News. One directed at former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's faith and its involvement in his campaign. The other was directed at former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and how his Mormon faith, according to a poll, makes it difficult for nearly half of American voters to unite around him.
By my count, abortion was mentioned once (by Romney) and marriage once (again, by Romney). There was no mention of stem cell research, faith-based initiatives or separation of church and state issues. The Supreme Court was only mentioned once, and that was involving the 2nd Amendment case before the court.
Is there any connection between this lack of interest in discussing religious issues and the great crack-up that is happening as Republican voters realize that their practical choices are turning out to be Romney and Senator John McCain of Arizona? Here is former Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson in The Washington Post Friday:
On the verge of the Florida primary next Tuesday and the Super Tuesday votes a week later, Republicans remain fractured and fractious. John McCain is either a war hero and critic of excessive spending -- or Sen. "McAmnesty," the friend of Ted Kennedy and the enemy of American sovereignty. Mike Huckabee is either a witty, well-spoken social conservative -- or an economic "liberal" who will "destroy the party." Mitt Romney is either the consensus choice of conservatives -- or whatever identity benefits him most at the moment. Rudy Giuliani is either a tough-minded hero of Sept. 11 -- or a social liberal with a shady past.
Gerson goes on to write that only Hilary Clinton can unit Republicans, which may be possible, but it does not deny the underlying fault lines within the party.
On the same day, Philip Jenkins, author of "Decade of Nightmares: The End of the 1960s and the Making of Eighties America" wrote in The Los Angeles Times that "the religious right has splintered, but hard times could bring it back." It is almost as if Gerson and Jenkins talk to the same people and are reading from he same playbook.
Jenkins provides some more history and addresses upfront why traditional churchgoers were brought into the Republican Party and why many of them may be considering a new home this fall:
Yet for all its power, the conservative coalition always had some odd and even unnatural alignments. Instead of asking why the alliance now seems troubled, we should rather ask how it survived as long as it did.
After all, there was no natural reason why the lower- and middle-income people who faithfully attend evangelical churches should favor the free-trade policies that have over the last quarter of a century wiped out much of the U.S. manufacturing base. Ordinary evangelical voters are disproportionately unlikely to be represented in the sectors of the economy that have boomed most conspicuously in recent years -- finance and high-tech, services and information. It was only a matter of time before religious believers started asking where their true interests might lie. Politically, evangelicals are up for grabs. Remember when commentators discovered such strange creatures as the Reagan Democrats? Perhaps this will be the year of Obama Republicans or even Hillary's megachurches.
But before we hold a funeral for the Reagan coalition, we should note how easily the circumstances of the late 1970s could repeat themselves. Already, looking at inflation rates and oil prices, journalists are drawing comparisons with the events of 1979-1980 and projecting a recession at least as bad as those years.
The problem with this story line is that it is not new.
The coalition has been breaking up since at least the 2006 congressional elections and the one candidate whom everyone thought could hold it together -- Fred Thompson -- has exited the race due to lack of support and success in the early primaries. In addition to lacking a unifying candidate, the hot-button morality issues that brought the pew voters into the Republican big tent are seeming to disappear in the face of the economic downturn.