On the TLC reality television program “19 Kids and Counting,” Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar chronicle their lives raising nineteen children on a sprawling Arkansas ranch. The Duggars adhere to a fundamentalist evangelical movement known as Quiverfull, which implores followers to birth as many children as reproductively possible — embracing the children-as-arrows metaphor of Psalm 127. As America’s most famous Quiverfull family, the Duggars fancy their television program as a sort of ministry: a culture war-weapon to transmit conservative values — homeschooling, family, faith, modesty and so on — to secular households across the country. Yet the 2012 primary season has pushed the Duggars from their small-town stage to the Washington political arena, where their endorsement has become a potent political tool for a fellow culture warrior.
“We totally believe that Rick Santorum is the best candidate,” Jim Bob Duggar told a packed crowd during the South Carolina primary. Though Jim Bob served as an Arkansas state legislator from 1999 to 2002, he and his family made their national political debuts during the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Jim Bob and Michelle made Santorum stump speeches; the kids wooed voters with Von Trapp-style renditions of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and “God Bless America.” When Santorum left the campaign trail to tend to his hospitalized daughter, who suffers from a rare genetic condition known as Edwards syndrome, the Duggars took his place at official campaign events from Florida to Pennsylvania.
The pro-life, pro-homeschooling Duggars represented and exemplified many of Santorum’s beliefs, and provided a natural, homegrown platform for his politics. Though Santorum is Roman Catholic, his faith and its manifestations often adopt the buzzwords of evangelicalism, and his heartland appeal often relies on, or at least benefits from, keeping his Catholicism hush-hush while positioning his Christianity front and center. According to an Edison Research entrance poll from the Iowa caucuses, Santorum won the greatest proportion of the self-described evangelical vote — with 40 percent of voters hoping for a candidate with “strong moral character” casting their ballots for him. Yet in South Carolina, Gingrich, also a convert to Catholicism, nabbed a majority of the evangelical demographic two days after the founder of the prominent Christian group Focus on the Family endorsed Rick Santorum.
And then, of course, there’s Mitt Romney: the Mormon candidate. Evangelical voices offered mixed messages, and political commentators disputed the extent to which Romney’s faith would sway the conservative Christian vote. The New York Times published “Why Evangelicals Don’t Like Mormons,” while “Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Doesn’t Matter” made an appearance in Rolling Stone. In Iowa, entrance polls revealed that 14 percent of evangelical voters cast ballots for Romney—the same percentage that voted for Texas governor Rick Perry. In South Carolina, that percentage rose to 22 percent. And in Florida: 38 percent.
In engineering George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, Karl Rove focused on American evangelicals, many of whom had stayed home in 2000. The years leading up to Bush’s reelection saw an explosion of evangelical political activity among teenagers, shattering the perceived monopoly of liberalism on the youth vote. In 2003, for instance, the Home School Legal Defense Association, helmed by conservative constitutional lawyer Michael Farris, launched Generation Joshua, an organization that recruits young homeschoolers as activists for religious political causes. Farris’s Patrick Henry College excused its students from class before the 2004 election; other Christian universities, like Bob Jones and Liberty, acted as similar hubs for the political mobilization of the Religious Right.
Institutions like Patrick Henry and Liberty derive their philosophy from the sentiment found in Pat Buchanan’s 1992 speech at the Republican National Convention. “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America,” Buchanan said. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” The conditions of total war inherent in the battle for America’s soul necessitate the personal-as-political attitude so perfectly encapsulated in the Duggar family. The Quiverfull movement encourages parents to view each additional child as yet another arrow in the quiver of God — much in the same way that Michael Farris and Pat Buchanan see themselves as generals in the culture war against secularism.
At the heart of the culture war sit conservative social issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, and the line between church and state. After all, certain economic policies may prove unwise, but rarely do they stand in direct opposition to the will of God. Economic policies rarely capture the hearts and minds of voters. Social issues, on the other hand, become a sort of symbolic politics, insofar as individual policies like abortion funding, a perceived decline in moral standards and civil unions come to represent affronts to religion and Christianity at large. And buzzwords — the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, and so on — translate into votes.
In previous years, evangelical votes fell on deeply partisan lines. Over 70 percent of evangelical voters in 2008 voted for Arizona Senator John McCain. Though many mainstream Republicans criticized McCain’s perceived reputation for failing to adhere to party lines, none could doubt his faith; meanwhile, many conservative voters remained skeptical of Obama’s religious background. And in the 2004 election, the previously vetted Bush provided the only conservative-friendly alternative to the secularism of John Kerry.
But in the 2012 Republican primary, evangelical voters have their pick of anyone-but-Obama candidates, with Santorum, Gingrich, Paul and even Romney attracting their share of votes. Therein rests the problem for the contemporary Religious Right — they are unable to translate widespread anti-Obama sentiment into support for one particular candidate. And as politicians begin to pander to evangelical voters — think Ron Paul, who broke from his heavily economic platform to attend a summit dedicated to promoting pro-life definitions of personhood — it is worth considering whether the religiosity of conservatives will hold the same sacred position it did in elections past.
Voters concerned about religious definitions of morality will never go away completely, but in an election centered on issues of secular economics, many primary voters — those less religious than the core of the Religious Right movement — may decide to compromise some matters of faith. But the Religious Right is still kicking: think of the recent decision, now reversed, for breast cancer advocacy organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure to remove funding for Planned Parenthood services, or the evangelical-led campaign to persuade retail giant J.C. Penney to oust Ellen DeGeneres as a sponsor. These grassroots efforts exemplify a new approach for the Religious Right, focused on diffusing widespread action in the Internet age, not clinging to a few big-name leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
All movements change, and the evangelical movement gains nothing from stagnation. Yet the decision to bring the Religious Right into 21st century politics might force evangelicals to sacrifice their stake in choosing the 2012 GOP nominee — a splintering of the evangelical vote, but not necessarily the evangelical movement.