Deck the Halls with Boughs of Homophobia: the 2012 Republican Presidential Primaries and the Evangelical Connection


GOP Candidates

In this article, the author looks at the evangelical presence in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries and how the issue of gender equality has resurfaced in the civil rights debate.

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By Matthias Pauwels, 9 Jan, 2012

With the United States Republican Party presidential primaries in full swing, the issue of marriage equality has regained considerable momentum over the past weeks in American national politics. In early December, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas – until Rick Perry decided to deck the halls with rabid homophobia rather than holly. In a bizarre ad, Perry equated the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[1]” to a blatant attack on people of faith. Michele Bachman, perhaps one of the most extreme and contested anti-gay candidates in the GOP presidential contest, has an impressive anti-gay track record, including likening being gay to being a “part of Satan”.  However, Bachman has suspended her campaign following a poor result in the Iowa caucus of January 3rd, 2012.

When the Iowa votes were in on that first Tuesday of 2012, Mitt Romney won the caucuses after publicly promising to support an amendment to the United States constitution barring same-sex couples from marriage. But perhaps the one to watch on the marriage equality front is Rick Santorum, who came in a close second to Romney and continues to court the support of extremist organizations and has strong ties to many anti-gay groups. Santorum has a long track record of trying to score political points by bashing the LGBT community. In Iowa, his anti-gay stance almost led him to victory. In New Hampshire however, Santorum’s anti-gay rhetoric got an icy reception as he got booed off stage after comparing marriage equality to polygamy.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum

Santorum and the Anti-Gay Lobbyist Force

Religious Right activists are positively giddy over the new momentum behind Rick Santorum’s candidacy for presidency, praising his appeal to women and evangelical centers on a desire for authenticity. In many ways, the conflict over marriage equality and gay rights represents what is arguably one of the dominant cultural cleavages of the post-material era in the United States. The specific battle over gay marriage represents a cultural cleavage between religious traditionalism on the one hand and progressivism on the other. In a similar fashion to the highly contested Proposition 8[2] vote in California and the legislative battle of the Marriage Equality Act[3] in New York, the evangelical movement was quick to jump on the anti-gay bandwagon in the presidential primaries. But Rick Santorum isn’t just close to traditional Religious Right organizations and activists: the former Pennsylvania senator even has ties to the most fringe parts of the movement. Santorum, for example, is a heavy supporter of Ron Luce’s cult-like group “Teen Mania”, which focuses on challenging a youth-culture that, in Luce’s words, promotes homosexuality. Luce’s organization Teen Mania, which hosts teen-oriented prayer rallies, was recently featured in the MSNBC documentary Mind Over Mania, where former interns described Teen Mania’s cult-like practices, such as faith healings and enduring verbal abuse and extreme sleep deprivation.

Last month Santorum attended the Presidential Pro-Life Forum hosted by Personhood USA, accompanied by fellow Republican presidential candidates Michelle Bachman and Newt Gingrich. As a radical anti-choice activist group, Personhood USA’s ultimate goal is to ban abortion and even common forms of birth control without exception. Earlier the group launched unsuccessful referenda in Colorado and Mississippi on the matter, characterizing President Obama as “the Angel of Death” and likening opponents of the proposed abortion ban to Nazis.

But perhaps there are three other organizations whose connection to Santorum is more worrisome, especially on the LGBT-front. For the Presidential Pro-Life Forum, Santorum was in close contact with Lou Engle’s The Call, also a host of the forum. In 2009, Engle used his The Call prayer rally to bolster Ugandan legislation that would criminalize and in some cases give the death penalty for homosexuals. The other organization is the highly evangelical Oak Initiative, a project of South Carolina pastor Rick Joyner. Joyner has previously argued that hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for the advancement of gay rights. And last but certainly not least, there is Focus on the Family, a non-profit group that, despite its warm and fuzzy name, is in tenor and in practice an anti-gay hate group. Focus on the Family is a recurrent factor in the evangelical ability to create powerful networks and was instrumental in gearing up to endorse Proposition 8 in California. Santorum has been a regular guest on Focus on the Family radio broadcasts, engaging in topics such as gay marriage and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, stating that injecting social policies into the military weakens its morale and that there is no place for “any type of sexual activity in the military”. Additionally, Santorum has found support in the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family’s political lobbying arm.

Santorum’s sentiments on homosexuality have often contradicted his own statements. He has spoken ardently in favor of personal freedoms, opposing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill[4] in 2002 on the grounds that it was an “affront to personal freedom and liberty.” But at the same time, Santorum argues that states do have a right to “limit individuals’ wants and passions” – striking an eerie resemblance to his comparison of marriage equality to polygamy and the need to curtail “any type of sexual activity” in the military and reinstate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Evangelicals and Politics: Hit or Miss?

Santorum’s views didn’t affect him negatively in Iowa, where evangelical Christians make up a large part of the Republican electorate. The religious groups voted heavily in his favor and helped propel him to top status just days before the Iowa caucus. But the story is different in New Hampshire, a state where gay marriage is legal and which boasts a much more moderate set of Republicans. So while Santorum’s views on traditional marriage and the sanctity of life might serve him well with certain constituencies, he is also alienating and bashing an entire community of his fellow Americans. Santorum’s views could be problematic for him in less conservative states – hence the icy reception he got in New Hampshire, which is next on the list in the 2012 Republican Party presidential primaries.

Santorum is likely to receive a more friendly welcome in South Carolina, but nationally, his views could come back to haunt him. But Santorum is no fool – enter the PR machine. One of his former aides who is openly gay recently jumped to Santorum’s defense, saying the former senator is not homophobic but simply opposes gay marriage.

It remains to be seen, however, whether or not an intricate set of evangelical lobbying networks can create a favorable power momentum for either Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney when focusing on social issues such as marriage equality. In Lobbying Against Progressivism: The Evangelical Power of Mobilization Against LBGT Rights in the United States I have previously argued that it is highly debatable whether the approval of Proposition 8 in California was exclusively enmeshed in evangelical lobbyist efforts. The legislative struggle for gender-neutral marriage in both California and New York testifies to the fact that it is still a deeply divisive and emotional issue on both sides of the fence. California’s highly contested approval of a ban on gender-neutral marriage and New York’s legislation of marriage equality – taken into account its long legislative struggle – still echo the growing pains of equality. For many Christian Right groups, opposition to gay rights has been a major agenda item for the past 30 years and in many ways, it has been their rallying cry.

But does having the support of American Evangelicals as a grassroots movement create any real political power, or is any outspoken religious affiliation more of an obstacle rather than an asset in the Republican presidential primaries? Many political observers in the Republican camp have been adamant on de-emphasizing Mitt Romney’s Mormon conviction as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. For many Republicans, Romney is an appealing candidate with compassionate conservative allure. Moreover, we would all like to believe that a politician’s religious affiliation is not an obstacle to higher office. Americans have indeed become more religiously tolerant, but Romney – as the first Mormon to run for President – will clearly have to change some minds. In the late 1960s, the percentage of Americans who said they would not vote for a Jewish or Catholic presidential candidate was in the double digits; by 1999, those numbers had fallen to 6 and 4 percent, respectively. Compare that to the 17 percent of Americans who currently say they would have qualms electing a Mormon to the White House. That number has not changed one bit since 1967, the year that Romney’s father considered a presidential run.

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney

In the end, it remains to be seen how both Romney and Santorum will wield their newly gained status as the Republican answer to Obama, and whether or not Santorum is looking to further intensify his relationship with evangelical movements.


[1] “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a controversial military policy barring openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers from military service. It was only recently, under the Obama administration, that a congressional bill to repeal the aformentioned military policy was enacted, setting the official end date of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for September 20, 2011.

[2] Proposition 8, also known under its ballot title “Eliminates Rights of Same Sex Couples to Marry: Initiative Constitutional Amendment” was a 2008 ballot proposition and constitutional amendment which added a new provision to the California Constitution. This initiative measure, additionally cited as the California Marriage Protection Act, aimed to add section 7.5 to the California Constitution, stating that “only marriage between a man and women is valid or recognized in California.” The ballot proposition passed in the California state elections on November 4, 2008 but was later overturned by a federal judge on grounds of unconstitutionality.

[3] The Marriage Equality Act was a senatorial bill in the state of New York legalizing same-sex marriage. The law took effect on July 24, 2011.

[4] The McCain-Feingold Bill was a bill which was introduced to the United States Senate in 2002 in an attempt to reform campaign financing in the United States.

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