Wisconsin’s Scott Walker Runs on Faith: ‘God Drives Every Major Decision In My Life’

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Spring Kick-Off, attends a theologically strict church. (Scott Morgan for The New York Times)
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Spring Kick-Off, attends a theologically strict church. (Scott Morgan for The New York Times)

Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist preacher, learned a lot about being a politician by going to church.

He was introduced to glad-handing while greeting worshipers beside his father after Sunday services. His confidence as a public speaker began at 2, when he delivered a Christmas greeting from the pulpit, and it blossomed when he preached occasional sermons as a teenager. And now, Mr. Walker’s lifelong church involvement may be a powerful asset as he positions himself to run for the Republican presidential nomination and focuses on early primary and caucus states dominated by evangelical voters.

Already a hero to fiscal conservatives — both the Tea Party base and billionaire donors like Charles G. and David H. Koch — Mr. Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, made his most explicit appeal yet to the Christian right on Saturday before hundreds of social conservatives in Iowa. During his toughest times in office, he said, “What sustained us all along the way is we had people who said, ‘We prayed for you.’ ”

His implicit message is that in an unusually fractured Republican field, with 10 or more candidates potentially on the ballot in the Iowa caucuses next year, he is best positioned to unite the party.

Ahead of Saturday’s candidate event — organized by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, part of the national group led by the religious activist Ralph Reed — Mr. Walker hardened his positions on issues considered litmus tests for social conservatives, including abortion and immigration. He suggested in an interview with Glenn Beck on Monday that there are too many legal immigrants, a position to the right of other 2016 hopefuls.

But it is Mr. Walker’s biography that could make him especially attractive to Christian conservatives. A life story that began in the Baptist churches his father led in Colorado, Iowa and Wisconsin continues today at the nondenominational evangelical church he attends in his hometown, Wauwatosa, Wis.

“My relationship with God drives every major decision in my life,” Mr. Walker said in an emailed statement. While that relationship does not direct his daily decisions, he said, “our walk of faith helps us prepare for those decisions and provides us comfort as we seek to do God’s will.”

During his political rise in Wisconsin, Mr. Walker did not often emphasize his faith. But evangelicals make up nearly 60 percent of Republican caucusgoers in Iowa. They are an important factor in Southern primaries. And they continue to have an outsize influence on the Republican nominating process.

While he was raised a dutiful “P.K.,” or pastor’s kid, Mr. Walker’s spiritual journey has not been without conflict. Over the years, his political views have sometimes made him a source of controversy in the places where he has worshiped.

Mr. Walker’s father, the Rev. Llewellyn S. Walker, was a minister in the American Baptist Churches USA, a more pluralistic denomination than the conservative and better-known Southern Baptist Convention. Pastor Llew, as he was known, is a Republican, but politics and the social causes of the day did not animate his First Baptist Church in Delavan, Wis., where Mr. Walker lived from age 10 until he left for college. His father was foremost “a caregiver to the congregation,” said the church’s current pastor, the Rev. Michael Ida. He would spend half a day sitting in the hospital room of an ailing church member, praying and shooting the breeze.

Before the elder Mr. Walker retired in 1995, at the age of 56, he struggled with depression, Mr. Ida said. His wife, Pat, and the teenage Scott Walker shouldered some of his pastoral duties. “There were Sundays when Scott would preach the sermon,” Mr. Ida said.

As an adult, Mr. Walker moved to Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee suburb, in search of a Republican-leaning district in which to run for the State Assembly. He and his wife, Tonette, joined another American Baptist congregation, Underwood Memorial Baptist Church, which had a history of social activism.

A dozen years later, in 2005, Underwood voted to affiliate with the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a gay-accepting national group, and a small rainbow flag was affixed to its signboard. (The hiring of a woman as pastor in 2003 had accelerated its progressive tilt.)

Mr. Walker, by then a candidate for governor, left the church.

“Tonette said they were looking for a more family-friendly place,” said Marilyn Carrington, a longtime member.

Some members believed he had cut ties because of Underwood’s liberal drift. “As soon as we put the flag on the sign, he was out of there,” said Kevin Genich, a former church member who knew Mr. Walker.

After a campaign event in Iowa on Friday, Mr. Walker deflected a question about whether he had left Underwood because it openly embraced gay members. He said there were few children the ages of his sons there. “Ultimately, we wanted to go to a place where our kids would have the ability to interact with other kids,” he said.

Mr. Walker’s parents, who in retirement had moved to be near their son and joined Underwood, had no objections. They continue to worship there.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
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