By Thomas J. Whitley
Scott Walker announced Monday that he is running to be the Republican nominee for President. He is the 15th person to announce this on the GOP side. When I wrote about Mike Huckabee and the evangelical vote back in May, I floated Scott Walker as someone who would challenge Huckabee on this front. He attended the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition back in April and even read an excerpt from the immensely popular devotional Jesus Calling. Many see Walker as a real contender for the GOP nomination, even though he is less well known on the national stage than Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio (besides these two, Walker was the only other potential GOP nominee to merit being mentioned by name in Hillary Clinton’s huge economic speech at the New School Monday). But his announcement speech Monday did not provide the overt religious references that we have come to expect from his Republican colleagues. He did not, for instance, give his speech at the largest evangelical college in the world like Ted Cruz did, he did not quote the Bible like Marco Rubio did in his announcement speech, and he certainly didn’t talk about his baptism like Mike Huckabee did in his announcement speech. Of course, Huckabee and Cruz are courting the evangelical vote so forcefully because it is likely their only shot at the nomination. Walker offered more subtle indications of his evangelical bona fides.
Walker spoke of his time in Boy Scouts and the influence of a two-World-War veteran on him and his “love for God and Country,” a phrase that undoubtedly perked the ears of anyone who has ever been in or around scouting. He dropped a mention that his dad was a “small-town pastor” and asserted that he would be someone who stood up for our “religious freedoms.” He also spoke of the need to “start treating Israel like an ally” and said, somewhat bafflingly from any legitimate foreign policy perspective, that “there should be absolutely no daylight between our two countries.” The mentions of Israel are not overtly religious, but the right’s almost unquestioning support of Israel cannot be understood apart from evangelicalism’s “devotion to Israel,” as Pat Robertson himself put it.
His energy policy also included something for the evangelical viewer. After telling of the evils that are “Obama’s bad regulations,” he advocated an “all-of-the-above” approach that “uses the abundance of what God has given us here in America and on this continent.” Behind this is the understanding popular among many evangelicals that God intended humanity to have complete dominion over the earth and that the earth and all of its resources exist for the use and pleasure of humans. That Pope Francis has recently disagreed quite prominently with such an interpretation would only serve to strengthen Walker’s standing among many evangelicals who want nothing to do with the “liberal” Christians who preach “stewardship of creation.”
Walker also seemed to take a page out of Rand Paul’s playbook when he asserted that “the greatest threat to future generations is radical Islamic terrorism.” This statement was in direct contradistinction to President Obama’s statement earlier this year that climate change is the greatest threat to future generations. Labeling “radical Islamic terrorism” as the “greatest threat to future generations” plays into general anti-Islamic sentiment among evangelicals and a healthy evangelical persecution complex.
While the religious politics of Scott Walker’s presidential announcement are less glaring than that of others in the field, they are still present and must not be overlooked. His understated approach will play better more broadly while still offering plenty for the evangelical voter, if only he knows what to listen for. This may not be dog-whistle politics at its finest, but I suspect that it will prove an effective strategy.
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