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Fall from grace: how ‘Christian values’ became a non-issue in Minnesota elections

Social issues — and those driven by those issues to vote — are not expected to play a substantial role in Minnesota’s general election this year.

Even in rural Minnesota, conservative candidates are rarely putting social issues front and center.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Expect a lot less Bible-thumping in the weeks leading up to this election. 

No less an authority than Allen Quist, the politician who in the early 1990s did so much to bring together evangelical Christians and politics in Minnesota, believes that social issues — and those driven by those issues to vote — will not play a substantial role in state races this year. “In terms of single-issue voters, there’ll be more single issue voters on the environment than on gay marriage,” Quist said.  

Quist is hardly alone in his assessment, and the diminished role of conservative Christians in this election cycle can be felt in a number of ways.  

Jeff Johnson, the Republican party’s candidate for governor, was generally seen as the most socially conservative of his party’s gubernatorial candidates. But Johnson, who makes it clear on his web site that he opposes abortion and gay marriage, isn’t making such divisive social issues a foundation of his campaign.  

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“Jeff is socially conservative,” notes a statement issued by Johnson’s campaign when asked about the role social issues will play in his campaign. “It’s who he is and what he believes and it’s reflected in his voting record. As governor, Jeff will encourage respectful dialogue on all issues, especially those social issues for which people have deep, heartfelt convictions.”

That’s not exactly the sort of hellfire-and-damnation approach that would send the hearts of the so-called Christian-values crowd racing.   

Then there was the primary race for House District 48B Eden Prairie, which made it clear that pounding on conservative Christian values probably doesn’t make for pragmatic politics in this election cycle.   

In that race, the conservative Christians were represented by Sheila Kihne, who challenged Rep. Jenifer Loon, one of the handful of Republican legislators who voted for the law that legalized gay marriage in 2013. Loon won easily. “Since that race, I can’t imagine that the Republican party would be foolish enough to raise gay marriage as an issue in suburban races,” said DFL party chair Ken Martin.  

And it’s in the suburbs where statewide political fortunes now rise and fall.  

That doesn’t mean that such groups as the Minnesota Family Council won’t attempt to be a factor in target legislative races, particularly those in Greater Minnesota. The outcome of those races is significant, given Republicans’ hope to recapture control of the House.

But even in rural Minnesota, conservative candidates are rarely putting social issues front and center. 

In the race for House District 10B, in Crow Wing and Aitkin counties, for example, the GOP’s Dale Lueck is in a rematch with DFL one-term incumbent Joe Radinovich.

It’s a race many pundits are watching. In 2012, the district strongly supported the amendment that would have outlawed gay marriage. That same year, Radinovich won the seat by 323 votes over Lueck, but then voted the next year for the bill legalizing gay marriage.

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Outside groups on both sides in the gay marriage issue are putting resources into the race. But the issue itself is below the surface. “This issue is not the same as abortion,”said Radinovich. “A lot of people have changed their views in the last two years.”

For his part, Lueck says he doesn’t really broach the topic with voters. “I don’t have to raise the issue,” Lueck said. “[Radinovich] raised the issue with the way he voted. There are many issues more important to the people in this district.” 

No organization did a better job of diffusing the emotions surrounding “Christian values” in politics than Minnesotans United for All Families, the alliance that led the campaign to first defeat the marriage amendment in Minnesota — and then pushed for legalization. 

In doing so, Minnesotans United aggressively pushed back on the notion that the Christian right owned Christian values. “Our approach was not to give ground (to the Christian right),” said Richard Carlbom, who was director of Minnesotans United and now heads United Strategies, which has signed on to work for legalizing gay marriage across the country. “We gave Christian leaders an avenue to have a voice.”

That meant that virtually every time someone from the Christian right claimed to Jesus and the Bible on the side opposing gay marriage, Minnesotans United made sure a Christian leader supporting gay marriage got in front of a camera to also talk about Christian values. 

Carlbom doesn’t agree with Quist that “the shelf life”of gay marriage as a political issue already has passed. It will continue to resonate, Carlbom believes, until the U.S. Supreme Court rules that equal rights to marriage is the law of the land. But he does say that the issue “is moving rapidly… Churches themselves are evolving rapidly.” 

The Christian right certainly isn’t going away. There are plenty of organizations, large and small, that are still are trying to tie so-called “Christian values” to the current election cycle.  

In Minneapolis, Lynne Torgerson has founded Christians United in Politics. Torgerson, a defense attorney and a failed candidate for Congress, filled e-mail accounts with her endorsements for various offices leading up to the primaries.  

Torgerson gave her blessings only to candidates who espoused their belief “in Biblical based Christian values on their websites, in their campaign literature and in their talks.”  

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It is her belief — and goal — that “a Christian political party” ultimately will evolve in the country, though she admits that Christian exclusivity gets theologically complex. “God will bless Christians — and I suppose Jews, too,” she said. “God does love Israel.” 

Only problem for Torgerson is that no one seems to have heard of her organization.

Not so for the Minnesota Family Council, which is seen as a savvy player in state politics, and not lacking for piety. Its theme question for its followers this year is: “What if the followers of Jesus Christ in Minnesota reclaimed their voice in businesses, schools, entertainment and government? What if we elected godly men and women to lead us and unite our communities to advance our shared values.” 

But of late, a majority of Minnesotans haven’t shared the Family Council’s values. Not only has the organization lost the marriage issue, it lost in an effort to block anti-bullying legislation earlier this year.  

Why would a Christian values-organization oppose a law meant to eliminate bullying in schools? Autumn Leva, communications director for the organization, said there were a variety of problems with the bill, ranging from free speech to cost to curriculum. For instance, curriculum changes more empathetic to LBGT students, “will cause problems for families and students from religious households of all types whose beliefs comport with sexual behavior.” 

The political losses of recent years won’t change the views of people who support the Family Council, Leva said. “These are political winds,” she said of the losses. “They don’t change values.”  

But the political winds certainly have a way of changing the rhetoric.