Ron Paul has displayed surprising strength among evangelical voters in recent polls despite intense (even desperate) attempts from candidates like Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry to win over the religious community. Paul’s position is no accident, however — the campaign has for months been aggressively reaching out to area churches to try and secure sympathetic pastors’ endorsements and smooth over the rougher edges around Paul’s libertarianism.
Paul’s Iowa state director Mike Heath has led the church outreach effort, carefully chronicling his extensive efforts on the campaign’s website. As of this week, he claims to have visited about 300 Iowa-area churches on behalf of Paul.
Heath is best known for his anti-gay activism, which includes a stint as chair of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, a fringe group with a history of spreading wild disinformation about gays.
His presence on the campaign may be useful in this regard. Paul’s much discussed 1980s and 1990s newsletters contain a number of outrageously homophobic passages, but his current take on gay rights is fairly nuanced compared to his rivals. He’s the only candidate who hasn’t signed a National Organization for Marriage pledge on the issue and he’s against a Federal Marriage Amendment. However, he supports the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to not recognize same sex marriages performed in other states. He also recently voted to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a move the rest of the GOP field largely opposed. Perhaps not coincidentally, several of the pastors’ endorsements Heath has secured name-check gay marriage in official campaign press releases.
“He is only for marriage of one man and one woman and would enforce the federal Defense of Marriage Act,” Rev. Glen E. Bandel, Pastor of the Nora Springs Christian Church, said in one such release. The Washington Examiner’s Phillip Klein also reports that the campaign is distributing flyers attacking President Obama’s “assault on marriage.”
Of course, there’s a fine line between being against gay marriage and being against, say, gays continued right to exist. The Paul campaign abruptly deleted an endorsement from Rev. Phillip Kayser without explanation after TPM reported he had called for implementation of the death penalty against homosexuals in accordance with his interpretation of Biblical law.
Kayser and other endorsers praise Paul’s opposition to federal encroachment on states’ rights, especially via the judicial system. The idea is that even if they don’t agree with him on individual issues, Paul’s ideological belief that almost all federal intervention into states laws are unconstitutional would give them more latitude to restrict abortion and gay rights in their own states and communities.
In an interview with TPM, Christopher J. Neuendorf, pastor of Holy Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa described this “liberty” as Paul’s chief selling point.
“We’ve typically approached abortion with the idea that we have to have a Republican in office, no matter how bad he is, so he can appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, so eventually 10 or 20 years from now we can overturn Roe v. Wade,” he said. “But Ron Paul has cosponsored legislation to restrict the jurisdiction of federal courts so they could not forbid states from criminalizing abortion. We could move much more quickly.”
Another troublesome area that Paul’s team has looked to overcome is Israel, unflinching support for which is even more popular within the evangelical community than it is within the broader Republican party at the moment. Paul is unique among the GOP field in calling for an end to all foreign aid, including to Israel, and he also stands alone in downplaying the threat of Iran’s nuclear program. Not to mention his old newsletters, which speculated that Israel might have had a hand in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
According to Neuendorf, Heath specifically stressed that Paul’s foreign policy was compatible with pro-Israel Christians in trying to secure his endorsement. In his pitch, he argued that although “those who are hugely supportive of Israel might be nervous Ron Paul wants to cut financial aid, on balance cutting financial aid would benefit Israel because we give a lot more aid to their enemies than we do to Israel.” He added: “I’d never thought about it before and Heath explained it pretty well.”
Paul isn’t without his own natural advantages in appealing to conservative religious voters, of course. He’s a pro-life OB/GYN who’s delivered thousands of babies and has made his biography a key plank of his speeches, most notably at the Ames Straw Poll in August, where he placed second behind Michele Bachmann. His address at the event included this chilling explanation of his pro-life conversion as a 1960s medical student:
“One day I walked in to an operating room and they did a hysterectomy which is a caesarian section, lifted out a baby that was crying and breathing, they put in a bucket in the corner of the room and let it die and pretended nobody heard it. That was rather disturbing, but as I walked out of that room, because I was a student, an observer, I walked out of the room and walked down the corridor and a baby about the same size was born prematurely, and all of a sudden, 20 people, nurses and doctors all rushing around to save the baby’s life, which seemed very logical.”
Add it all up, and Paul has a unique, if unconventional, pitch to the religious right: he may not always agree with them, but his hardcore federalist take on the Constitution could benefit their cause either way.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.