Few national politicians have been a better friend to the Religious Right than U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Over the years, I've attended several Religious Right meetings where Brownback spoke. He always received a hero's welcome before adoring crowds.
Formerly an evangelical Protestant, Brownback has since converted and become a traditionalist Roman Catholic. He is known for his strong opposition to legal abortion and gay rights. There was palpable excitement among many Religious Right groups when Brownback announced he would run for president in 2007, although he soon dropped out of the race.
I was a bit taken aback, therefore, when I received an e-mail recently from the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) accusing Brownback of being a hypocrite.
Wildmon's OneNewsNow, a right-wing agit-prop arm that masquerades as a news service, ran stories accusing Brownback of throwing unborn babies "under the bus" and charging him with engaging in a "sell-out."
What had Brownback done to incur the wrath of his pals in the Religious Right? He announced he would support the nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to run the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Sebelius holds (gasp!) pro-choice views on abortion, and the Religious Right had expected Brownback to come after her with guns blazing.
But word is that Brownback plans to run for Kansas governor in 2010. Sebelius has been a popular governor, and Brownback has no reason to antagonize her. Politics, we all know, does make for some curious alliances.
The AFA isn't the only group worked up over this. The Family Research Council (FRC) is so angry over Brownback's move that it has temporarily pulled out of meetings of the "Values Action Team" on Capitol Hill. Brownback chairs these meetings every week to figure out ways to advance the Religious Right agenda. At least for a while, FRC has decided it doesn't want to play any more.
Tom McClusky, senior vice president of FRC Action, told Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody, "It was a very tough decision except the Family Research Council thought that while we try to fight against this Sebelius nomination and to bring her record to light that it would be better if we took a temporary leave of absence from the Values Action Team...."
Since then, the FRC has pretty much bombarded my inbox daily with anti-Sebelius messages. She is "anti-woman," the FRC insists, and the group has highlighted attacks on her by Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City. (Sebelius is Roman Catholic, and Naumann has gone so far as to insist that she refrain from taking communion.)
The irony is, Sebelius has actually implemented policies that have reduced the number of abortions in Kansas, mainly by pushing for better social-service programs and healthcare.
Baptist Press, the news service of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, reported recently that some evangelicals are impressed by this. Fifteen Christian leaders, including some evangelicals, have signed a statement endorsing Sebelius' nomination. The most prominent among them is Joel Hunter, senior pastor of central Florida's Northland Church. Hunter, who has a budding relationship with President Barack Obama, is emerging as a national evangelical leader who doesn't always toe the Religious Right line.
It's always entertaining when the Religious Right turns on its own, but I don't expect this to last. Brownback will probably weather this storm. Even the AFA admits that. Still, it's likely he's going to have to do a little work to get back into the Religious Right's good graces and do a little horse trading. It's hard to say what form will that take, but I'd recommend keeping a close eye on that "Values Action Team."