RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Eight Republican presidential candidates will join social conservative activists this weekend at the annual Values Voter Summit. Tonight's honoree will be Kentucky clerk Kim Davis who defied the Supreme Court by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: When it comes to religious liberty, the Republican message is getting very confusing. Earlier this week, Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who's currently in the top three of the Republican field, had this to say about whether a politician's faith should matter to voters.
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BEN CARSON: If it's inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter.
LIASSON: Carson singled out one particular religion in an interview with NBC's Chuck Todd.
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CHUCK TODD: So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?
CARSON: No I don't. I do not.
LIASSON: Carson seemed unaware that Article Six of the Constitution states, quote, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office." And he seemed to be arguing that while Muslim beliefs need to be kept out of public life, Kim Davis' Christian beliefs should not. With the exception of Jeb Bush and John Kasich, all the major Republican candidates support Davis. But Margaret Hoover, a Republican strategist and gay rights advocate, thinks this is not a good thing for the GOP.
MARGARET HOOVER: It's a terrible message to send. If you were a constitutionalist - this is not a complex reading. When you represent the Constitution and you enforce federal laws, you enforce federal laws. There is no religious freedom exemption from federal laws.
LIASSON: It seems that every day there's another example of how the Republican base is pushing the party further and further from the center of the American electorate. This week, it was anger at Muslims. Before that, it was Donald Trump and Hispanics. Pete Wehner, a former aide to George W. Bush, says there are powerful forces inside the GOP fueling this.
PETE WEHNER: There's just a view out there among Republican voters that is apocalyptic. We've lost our country, and we need a strong man to take it over, and he may be loud may be vulgar, but he can shake up the system.
LIASSON: And with more than 50 percent of Republican voters, at least for the moment, backing someone completely outside the political system - Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina - it's clear a lot of that anger is also directed at the Republican Party itself.
WEHNER: There is a rage, an uncontained rage toward the establishment because they feel like the Republican Congress hasn't stopped President Obama. I think that this is a delayed reaction of the Obama reelection. A lot of Republican voters thought he was so transparently and obviously a failure. And he not only won, but he won easily. And I think that was a huge psychological blow.
LIASSON: So what will the Republican Party do about this? Even if Trump himself fizzles, as some polls suggest is already beginning to happen, the party will still have to deal with what Trump stands for. Conservative writer Ben Domenech is the publisher of The Federalist.
BEN DOMENECH: If you have a party that is able to synthesize the populist rage that is in support of a lot of these outsider candidates, then you can actually have a coalition that comes out of it. But if you don't....
LIASSON: If you don't, says Domenech, the Republicans could kill their chances with minorities for a generation. Into this roiling debate about tolerance and inclusion, along comes Pope Francis. For Pete Wehner, the contrast was uncomfortable.
WEHNER: Pope Francis is in some ways the anti-Trump on immigration. His moral position is much more defensible and much more inviting than the Donald Trump position. So you have the leader of the Republican Party in the presidential race who's a nativist, and a xenophobe. And then you have this extremely popular Pope who is very sympathetic to the immigrant's cause and has a pastor's heart and is putting forth a very, very different message.
LIASSON: So maybe this Pope, derided by so many conservatives as too liberal on issues like climate change and the death penalty, is actually modeling a way out of the Republican Party's toxic debate on the issue of immigration. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.