Florida Primary Winner: ‘War on Religion’ Talking Point

Newt Gingrich staked his campaign on being the candidate who will restore American exceptionalism—Christian American exceptionalism, that is—and who will fight back against President Obama’s supposed “war on religion.” But Mitt Romney’s blowout showed just how limited Gingrich’s appeal is, even among Republicans.

That was the good news for Mitt Romney. But it’s also tonight’s bad news for the frontrunner because he’ll need those voters (the recruits to the Gingrichian army who think they’re saving America from Barack Obama’s “war on religion”) to win a state like Florida in November. Those voters heard from Gingrich that Romney, like Obama, engaged in a war on religion by depriving elderly Jewish nursing home residents their kosher meals.

Mind you, for Gingrich’s last, desperate stand, it seemed a long shot that many Republican voters in Florida would care that in the course of cutting the Medicaid budget (something they of course love), some Jews in Massachusetts had to have kosher meals brought in rather than prepared in their nursing homes. If anything, this was probably more of an oy gevalt moment for Gingrich, who, after making the claim on the campaign trail, subsequently denied knowing that his campaign dispatched a robocall claiming Romney “forced” Holocaust survivors to “eat non-kosher.”

If he thought he was making a play for the Jewish vote, he was sadly mistaken: Jews made up only 1% of Republicans voting in the primary.

Gingrich’s saber-rattling against Iran’s “second Holocaust,” the threat of “radical Islam,” the “secular left,” and Obama’s “anti-religious bias” are standard religious right talking points. At the Florida Awake! forum at Aloma Church on Saturday, the audience was primed by speakers filling airtime before Gingrich’s late arrival with ominous messages of religious freedom under threat from despotism. Yet, even voters who react to demagoguery about the “war” on Christianity still had doubts about Gingrich. They had doubts about his marital history, and his “baggage” (a term straight out of a Romney ad).

Gingrich is particularly well-suited to deliver the religious persecution message as he’s trained a good chunk of the base to expect to hear it, or be suspicious.

Echoing the reaction of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Obama administration’s recent decision not to broaden the exemption of religious institutions from the requirement that insurance cover contraception, Gingrich has claimed not just a broad-based war on religion, but a war on Catholicism in particular. At his campaign events, including tonight’s gathering, I met conservative Catholics who were outraged, in part from hearing an anti-Obama administration message during their priest’s homily. Gingrich stoked their anger, and their admiration for him.

Debbie Earle, of Atlanta, was at Gingrich’s event tonight in Orlando. “I love Newt,” she told me, “he’s a genius.” Based on the Bishops’ letter, Earle believed that the Obama administration rule would require not just contraceptive coverage, but coverage for abortion as well. (It does not.) “It’s against what we believe, the right to life,” she said. “Where’s the separation of church and power?” At a a campaign stop in Orlando yesterday, Gingrich pledged to protect “the right to worship God without government interference.”

Gingrich, a convert to Catholicism, could not even win the Catholic vote. Thirty-one percent of voters are Catholic, and Romney won them handily, 56% to Gingrich’s 30%. In his victory speech tonight, Romney showed he’s getting the message, pledging to eliminate the regulations requiring the insurance coverage for contraceptives. (Unlike the Catholic Church, Romney’s own church does not prohibit the use of birth control.)

For all of Gingrich’s talk, his campaign treated its actual faith outreach—an effort the Romney campaign didn’t explicitly undertake at all—cavalierly. His campaign publicized his outreach to evangelical pastors, spearheaded by David Lane, the activist who organized Rick Perry’s The Response and later praised anti-Mormon statements Pastor Robert Jeffress made as he endorsed Perry. But as I reported this morning, pastors listed as members of Gingrich’s Florida Faith Leaders Coalition were surprised to learn their names were included as members of the coalition. This could prove damaging to Gingrich as he seeks the support of other religious leaders.

Among evangelical voters, who made up 40% of primary voters, Gingrich took 38% to Romney’s 36%. That’s a tiny margin for Gingrich, and smaller than his margin in South Carolina, where he won 44% of evangelicals, who made up 65% of the electorate there. 

How far Romney will go in adopting the Gingrich religion message remains to be seen. Most voters I’ve talked to here in Florida said they’d vote for Romney in the general election, even if they believed him to be insufficiently conservative. Their antipathy toward Obama—an antagonism that is deeply wrapped up in the belief that he is a fake Christian, or worse, a Muslim seeking to rob them of their religious freedom—will drive them to the polls. We haven’t heard the end of the “war on religion.” It’s just the beginning.