If the Republican Party wants to assemble the voter base it needs to win national elections, it must maintain pro-life and pro-family stances on the issues, an evangelical leader told a GOP planning and strategy meeting this week. At the same time, he pointed to a decades-long victory on abortion while counseling conservative Christians not to give up, even if it appears they are losing the battle over LGBT issues with some wings of the GOP.
One of the party’s key constituencies is comprised of SAGE Cons, a term coined by pollster George Barna, which stands for “Spiritually Active Governance Engaged Conservatives.” SAGE Cons live out their faith by matching their political activity to scriptural values.
“SAGE Cons are not driven by party; they’re not driven by personality. They are drawn in by policy, by the platform,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told the Republican Party’s summer meeting in Chicago, which took place August 2-5. “That’s what I encouraged them to focus on: to keep a platform that is in line with traditional family values,” Perkins told “Washington Watch” guest host Joseph Backholm on Thursday.
Backholm underscored the SAGE Con worldview: “Our goal is not to be Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals: We are to be biblical,” Backholm affirmed. “But we know the differences between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are significant, especially on a lot of the biblical issues.”
The little-remarked group has undeniable electoral potency, especially in the Republican Party. Barna stated that SAGE Cons cast 23 million votes in 2020. Other surveys note that “white evangelical Christians” — a different demographic that does not perfectly overlap with SAGE Cons — make up approximately one out of every five American voters; eight out of 10 voted for Donald Trump in 2020; and they made up nearly half of the Republican Party’s winning coalition in 2016. “Republicans are reliant on the group’s support and mobilization in order to accumulate 270 Electoral College votes,” the left-of-center Brookings Institution assessed.
Perkins said “the party leadership has responded” to his presentation. “The chairwoman of the party, Ronna McDaniel, has been very open and receptive.” While he freely admitted “the party isn’t perfect,” he said the GOP can serve as “a vehicle” to advance Christian values in the public square. “We have two major parties in this country in our political system,” Perkins observed. “It’s important that we influence these parties to carry policies and positions that are in keeping with biblical values.”
Biblically minded conservatives may be tempted to believe their view of LGBTQ issues has lost the broader culture, and even the Republican Party, but Perkins reminded listeners that they would have had the same view on abortion not that long ago.
The 49-year Fight for Life Inside the GOP
“The abortion issue was really the threshold, the doorway, my entry into the political realm,” Perkins revealed. He remembered that, when he entered politics in 1992, the right to life “was a very controversial issue among the ranks of Republicans. In fact, there was constant fighting” over this and other social issues.
While every Republican platform since 1980 has endorsed adding a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there has been a prolonged effort to retract, or ignore, that language. For decades, the legacy media showered attention on a tiny group called Republicans for Choice led by Ann Stone, who was then married to Roger Stone. Stone announced she would pilot a “pro-choice caravan” en route to changing the GOP platform at the 1992 convention. “Organizers predicted that the caravan would be met at every stop by enthusiastic crowds on its way to the Republican National Convention in Houston,” reported The New York Times. “In fact, there have been no crowds at all. And the caravan is not really a caravan. It consists of one rented Ryder moving van.” Though the platform did not budge, Stone’s group received unwarranted news coverage every four years for the next 20 years, even after the PAC ceased its (exceedingly modest) donations to candidates in 2008.
“Fortunately, those who were committed to truth and to life did not heed that political spin. They stayed focused. They encourage people to vote pro-life,” stated Perkins.
While Republicans for Choice spent 1992 playing to empty parking lots, Pat Buchanan gave a stirring prime time speech on the power of cultural issues. “This election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself,” he said to rousing applause.
The pro-life cause faced a serious challenge in 1996, when nominee Bob Dole demanded the party water down its abortion plank with a “tolerance clause,” which he deemed “not negotiable.” Instead, Christian conservatives wrote a pro-life plank so robust that Buchanan said he should “charge royalties” for it. A bitter Dole stated, “I’m not bound by the platform. … I haven’t read it.” He went on to lose by 8.2 million votes, or 8.5% of the vote, a stunning blowout against the last Democratic candidate to feign moderation on abortion.
Despite the strength of Christian conservatives and social issues, particularly to George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election, party leaders relegated social conservatives to less desirable speaking positions in 2000 and 2004 while giving prime time speaking slots to speakers such as Rudy Giuliani, who opposed a partial birth abortion ban.
After the defeat of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in 2012 — when one of Romney’s only abortion-related ads proclaimed that Romney “thinks abortion should be an option” in limited circumstances — the GOP attempted to chart a future free of social issues. The party issued a so-called “Autopsy Report,” which called for the GOP to focus on economic growth — and embrace LGBT issues. “When it comes to social issues, the [p]arty must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming,” it said. “[W]e must change our tone — especially on certain social issues ... Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.” It sought to recruit more LGBT candidates and change GOP political stands accordingly: “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too. We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities. But it is not just tone that counts. Policy always matters.” It also prodded Republicans to adopt “comprehensive immigration reform,” a form of amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States.
As Politico noted, in 2016 Donald Trump campaigned on “a photo-negative of everything the autopsy said.” He openly named the originalist, constitutionalist justices he would name to the Supreme Court — all three of whom voted to overturn Roe v. Wade in June.
The party’s transformation can hardly be overstated since the GOP nominated “strongly pro-choice” Gerald Ford for president in 1976. “In the last major presidential election, 2016, when we had a big field of Republican candidates, only one of the 17 described himself as pro-choice”: former New York Governor George Pataki (who was also one of the first candidates to drop out). Pro-life influence does not just extend to the executive branch. “In Congress today among the Republican conference, every single one embraces a pro-life view. Now, there might be some that are not as strong as others, but there are no longer after the 2018 election, any openly pro-choice Republicans,” Perkins said with evident satisfaction. “We have made tremendous strides over the last two decades.”
‘The Work Continues’
While the life issue seems more settled in the GOP, issues such as same-sex marriage have become a new flashpoint. “We hear a lot of the same arguments now on the issue of the LGBTQ agenda,” Perkins pointed out. “And while they are different issues at their core,” both center around a “denial of truth: It is about denial of the natural order of what God has created. And so therefore, as believers, we cannot yield to those arguments. We need to continue to stand on biblical truth.”
He highlighted that “it took 49 years on Roe, but I think ultimately people begin to see the deception, the destruction that comes about by pursuing a lie.” Many already see the evident harms created by the notion that people can “define your own gender and that we can deny that God created us, as Jesus said in Matthew 19, male and female” — particularly parents newly aware of corrosive public school curricula including radical gender theory.
Already, some of the Republican Party’s wavering members have reconsidered. “Many” of the 47 Republicans who voted for the so-called “Respect for Marriage” act have “been in retreat on that vote,” Perkins said. “People are waking up, but we have to remain firm.”
“Our work is just beginning,” Perkins declared. “We cannot rest. We cannot think that this issue has been settled. The work continues. That’s our role.”
“As I always close the program from Ephesians chapter 6, our call is to engage in the spiritual battle, which is what life is: It is a spiritual battle,” Perkins concluded. “We are called to stand. And so, until the Lord takes us home or He comes back, we’re to continue standing for His truth.”
Ben Johnson is senior reporter and editor at The Washington Stand.