You’ve probably never heard of the Chuck Colson Litmus Test. Heck, maybe you haven’t even heard of Chuck Colson.
I’m actually writing today about Mitt Romney and evangelical Christian voters, but first we need to get up to speed about Colson. He died Saturday at age 80. He first gained national notoriety 40 years ago as one of Richard Nixon’s top in-house thugs, a Watergate co-conspirator who landed in the slammer along with a scad of other Republican dirty tricksters. He then saw the evil of his ways; having found redemption, he reinvented himself as a high-profile evangelical Christian. In the words of fellow evangelical Erick Erickson, the prominent conservative blogger, Colson was “a genuine hero…a man of great consequence in American history and in the history of the evangelical movement.”Which brings us to the Colson Litmus Test, as devised by Erickson. Which Romney has apparently flunked. For months Erickson has repeatedly highlighted Romney’s problems with evangelicals, who constitute a huge segment of the Republican base and roughly 25 percent of the general electorate. As Erickson rightly noted this weekend, Romney’s November prospects are shaky unless he can finally do what he has thus far failed to do: galvanize the Christian right. Naturally, he’ll get at least 80 percent of evangelical voters this fall. The problem, however, is that it could be 80 percent of a small pool – with the rest staying home. And why would that be? Because, as Erickson wrote on Saturday, “these voters do not trust Mitt Romney, do not think he appreciates them or can relate to them, and thinks he takes them for granted.”And, as Erickson sees it, this disconnect was demonstrated anew after Colson died – because, unlike so many other Republican leaders, Romney released a bland statement that typified his “tin ear.”For comparison purposes, Erickson cited a few eulogies. Here was Mike Pence, the conservative Indiana congressman who’s currently running for governor: “(Colson) rose to the heights of political power and fell to the depths of disgrace, but in his fall, he found redemption in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Having been given a second chance, Chuck Colson devoted his life to carrying the Christian message of second chances to those in prison, and he saw countless lives changed by his compassion and example.”Here was John Boehner: “(Colson) inspired a generation of Christian believers to defend the faith while showing true compassion for people forgotten by society. In the eyes of the world, he was a person who had it all and then lost it all. But in God’s eyes, Chuck’s path in life was just preparation for His higher purposes.”Erickson didn’t cite Rick Santorum, but Rick’s remarks were similar: “His work to bring Christianity to those who were in their darkest days changed the lives of many…Chuck was a patriot who loved his country and loved serving his God…”All those statements were actually much longer. My quotes are excerpts; Erickson ran them in full. Yet here’s the sum total of what Romney said: “Chuck Colson embodied and made possible an immeasurable amount of good in the lives of the people, families and communities he served in bringing a message of faith and hope. Ann and I are praying for Patty, the Colson family and all the people he touched throughout the world who will miss him.”OK. Those of you who are not evangelical Christians might well be thinking, “What’s wrong with what Romney said? What’s the big deal?”But when viewed through the evangelical prism, it’s indeed a big deal. From Erickson’s perspective, the statement is all wrong, a fresh symptom of Romney’s “tin ear,” further proof that “the issue (of) Romney’s unsteady standing with evangelicals is objectively legitimate and legitimately a problem.”Why? Because, unlike those other GOP statements, the two-sentence Romney statement never once invoked “God” or “Christian” or “Christianity” or “Jesus Christ.” Erickson wrote, “It may seem like a trivial thing, but for a group already presuming that they’ll be taken for granted and not really valued, it’s a real problem.”Obviously, Erickson isn’t the only spokesman for evangelicals, many of whom are making peace with Romney; and, naturally, as befitting the online medium, Erickson has been viciously attacked by some conservative readers for crafting the Colson Litmus Test. But his views clearly reflect the millions of evangelicals who are still holding back. His general argument: “As an evangelical, let me explain something to those of you who may not be able to relate, don’t understand, or just don’t like it. Evangelicals view themselves as strangers in a strange land….For those of you who view Romney as better than Obama, evangelicals view them both as sinners in a lost world, which they fully expect to go to hell in a hand-basket before the second coming.” Therefore, since “they are just passing through on their way to eternity, a number of them may sit out (the election). Just as troubling and extremely likely, they’ll vote for Romney, but they won’t give money, knock on doors, get their friends engaged, or show any other enthusiasm.”Ericson is a good barometer of wary base sentiment. So is Steve Deace, the radio host in swing-state Iowa who told the Los Angeles Times this weekend that he’s still wary of Romney: “The audible voice of God will have to give my moral conscience permission to vote for someone who opposes me on everything. (Romney) is more loathed by social conservatives than any Republican candidate I can think of.”So here’s one of the big questions, going forward: Can a Republican win a general election race with such tepid support from a crucial slice of his own base? Romney did himself no favors by being so evangelically incorrect about Chuck Colson. Perhaps he can make rhetorical amends when he gives the May 12 commencement speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (where folks are less than thrilled that he’s coming). The very fact that he finds it necessary to do that gig, at such a late date in the campaign cycle, is proof of his persistent problem.
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