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A new Crusade within the GOP

March 25, 2007|Dan Gilgoff | DAN GILGOFF is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report and the author of "The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War."

WHEN Mitt Romney emerged from a closed-door meeting at the recent National Religious Broadcasters convention, a handful of reporters, myself included, descended on him. What, we asked, was the toughest question put to him by evangelical leaders?

" 'How does America win against the jihad?' was at the top of the list, and the nuclear proliferation represented by Iran," the Republican presidential candidate said.

My fellow reporters groaned disbelievingly. What about battling the "radical homosexual agenda?" Or building a pro-life majority on the Supreme Court?

Maybe Romney was being coy. Or maybe his powwow with Christian-right activists happened just like he said it did, signaling a major development within the GOP's evangelical base: that the war on terror -- and, more broadly, the confrontation with Islamic radicalism -- have become "values" issues.

Such a change would turn the conventional wisdom about the 2008 GOP presidential primary on its head. No longer would front-runners Arizona Sen. John McCain and ex-New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani find their moderate (or inconsistent) records on abortion or gay rights a looming liability. Under a "terror values" rubric, both could win over evangelicals with their tough-on-terrorism credentials.

Romney, meanwhile -- who's been courting the Christian right most fervently -- would suffer from his lack of experience with national defense and international issues. Same goes for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, current darling of the right.

Polls show that evangelicals support President Bush's "kill the terrorists over there so they don't kill us here" vision in greater numbers than other Americans. A survey by the Pew Research Center in December found that 63% of white evangelicals supported Bush's handling of the terrorist threat, while fewer than half of all Americans expressed similar support.

What explains that gap? "It's that evangelicals often look at the world in terms of good and evil because of their understanding of the Bible," said Joel Rosenberg, a Jew-turned-evangelical-Christian who writes novels dealing with terrorism. His books, including "The Last Jihad," have sold millions to a largely evangelical readership. "Because we understand that there's evil present in some foreign leaders," Rosenberg said, "we understand they are capable of committing acts that most people think are impossible."

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, holds a similar opinion. "This is a fundamental clash of world views," Perkins said after he and other Christian-right activists met with McCain at the NRB convention. "More than any other segment of the American population, the evangelical movement understands that because they operate from a biblically-centered worldview."

Many evangelicals take few pains to distinguish between Islam's mainstream and its fringes. Some view our war on terror as the latest in a series of battles that started in the 7th century (when Muslim caliphs conquered Christian North Africa) and includes the Crusades for the Holy Land. Even today, the mistreatment and, in some cases, outright persecution of Christian "remnant" communities in predominantly Muslim countries such as Egypt, Syria and Sudan is a mainstay of Christian broadcasts and mega-church sermons.

Terrorism and Islamic extremism are likely to gain even broader resonance in the American evangelical universe as the 2008 primaries close in. This month, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson has devoted five episodes of his hugely popular daily radio program to the subject of Islamic radicalism. Through a spokesman, Dobson said that terrorism isn't yet on par with abortion and same-sex marriage as a values issue -- but that it will be if there's another terrorist attack on the United States.

Dobson also said recently that he could never support Giuliani or McCain for president. Other Christian-right leaders, such as the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, say that evangelicals will stay home on election day if Giuliani is the nominee.

But Rosenberg, the evangelical novelist, is not so sure. "With [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's nuclear weapons program, a lot of evangelicals are going to have to say, 'Look -- we need somebody who can defend Judeo-Christian civilization,' " Rosenberg said. "If the election comes down to Giuliani against Hillary [Clinton], the evangelical base ... will have to ask who they want sitting in the chair if we go to war with a nuclear Iran." For many evangelicals, that question could deem Giuliani not just the lesser of two evils but a national savior.

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