WASHINGTON — In an election season driven by economic worries, Republican leaders are trying to keep Christian conservatives excited and involved by blurring the line between religious/social issues and low-tax crusades — a divide that has helped shape past GOP primaries.
Failure to do so could potentially depress turnout by an important part of the Republican base. Fiscal issues are dominating, but social and Christian conservatives have no obvious candidate to turn to, as they did when Baptist minister Mike Huckabee ran.
Facing this vacuum, a host of presidential hopefuls are emphasizing their religious faith and opposition to abortion and gay marriage, even though they are better known as business-like managers of state governments and private companies.
Their efforts were on display Friday at a Washington gathering of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group whose name summarizes the bid to combine religious and libertarian priorities.
"I do not believe the Republican Party should focus solely on our economic life to the neglect of our human life," Jon Huntsman said.
Acknowledging that the federal deficit will be a huge issue in 2012, Huntsman said: "If Republicans ignore life, the deficit we will face is one that is much more destructive. It will be a deficit of the heart and of the soul."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made similar points, if somewhat more prosaically. "The debt we are amassing as a nation and passing on to our children is immoral," he said in remarks prepared for an evening address to the conference.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition is headed by Ralph Reed, who made his name as the young and savvy political strategist for the Christian Coalition in the 1990s. Starting with television evangelist Pat Robertson's second-place finish in the 1988 GOP Iowa caucus, the religious right played a major role in Republican politics for years.
Following the 2007 death of the politically dynamic Christian leader Jerry Falwell, some churches and ministers have de-emphasized partisan politics. The religious right's place is less certain now. Reed is among those trying to strengthen it by tying it more tightly to economic issues, which traditionally took a back seat to abortion, prayer in schoo and gay rights.
Everyone is concerned about deficit spending, Reed said in an interview. "Intergenerational theft in the form of massive debts passed on to future taxpayers is a moral issue," he said.
Reed said the line between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives is thinner and blurrier than it was a few years ago. "The tea party was the moment that marriage took place," he said, alluding to the libertarian-tinged movement that arose in 2009, mainly in opposition to President Barack Obama's health care proposals.
It's not entirely clear how solid that marriage is, however. Without question, many conservative and liberal voters care deeply about social and economic issues alike. But in the world of conservative activists, many seem more at home in one camp.
An August 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of tea party supporters had not heard of or did not have an opinion about "the conservative Christian movement sometimes known as the religious right."