Left behind

Evangelicals are getting ready to abandon their right-wing ways.

| Tue Jun. 22, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

What keeps Karl Rove up at night? The prospect of real campaign finance reform? A Kerry-McCain presidential ticket? Another recession? Not quite. Try an evangelical revolution. On Sunday, The Los Angeles Times reported that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is preparing new formal guidelines on political involvement, to be circulated among the 30 million evangelicals in the United States. The framework will endorse government programs to combat social and economic injustice. And if that alone isn't enough to to put the fear of God into Rove and the Republican Party, the Association is recommending that evangelicals stop taking sides in the political process:

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"This is a maturing of the evangelical public mind," said Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, one of the nation's principal evangelical schools. "Instead of just assuming an automatic alliance with a specific party — and that's been traditionally the Republicans — it says evangelicals ought to be more thoughtful."

At present, 69 percent of white evangelicals vote Republican, and Rove has famously argued that four million of them stayed home on Election Day in 2000. To remedy that, the Bush administration has spent the past three years assiduously courting evangelicals--most notably by opposing abortion, expanded stem-cell research, and gay marriage.

But the emphasis on "rally the base" social issues -- on which most evangelicals do in fact agree -- has obscured some of the divisions within the faith. A March poll by Religion & Ethics Weekly revealed that only 37 percent of white evangelicals cited "moral values" as a primary concern. By contrast, 41 percent of African American evangelicals--and 34 percent of Hispanics--listed "the economy and jobs" as their number one issue. The new NAE guidelines are an attempt in part to bridge this gap, and to emphasize working through disagreements with people of all political stripes.

From a progressive standpoint, the most important provisions in the NAE paper include a religious commitment to "government protections for the poor," including fair wages, health care, nutrition, and education. The new focus reflects an increasing focus among evangelicals on more effective means of charity. In The American Prospect earlier this year, Ayelish McGarvey reported on the changing attitudes of these "freestyle" evangelicals:

Jonathan Eastvold, 26, is a lifelong Republican and conservative. ... Eastvold voted for Bush in 2000 but became an avid supporter of Wesley Clark during the Democratic primaries. "The more I've thought about politics, the more discontent I've become with the facile [relationship] between theological conservatism and political conservatism," he wrote on the Christians for Clark blog. "[I]n fact, [I] spend most of my time discovering that a consistent reading of the Bible leaves me at odds with the GOP establishment -- whether we are talking about policies toward the poor, the environment, foreign policy, or even -- perish the thought in light of the last decade of GOP rhetoric -- presidential character."

His posting received enthusiastic "amens" from other Christians fed up with the Bush presidency. "Anyone who really reads the New Testament ... knows ... that Jesus' teachings are LIBERAL!" exclaimed one.

Freestyle evangelicals threw their support for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in the '90s. Could they do the same this year? Not likely, says the Barna Group, a polling outfit. In a new survey released last week, Bush's support from evangelicals was hovering around 86 percent -- a bigger proportion than he received in 2000. Barna, it should be noted, used a more narrow definition of evangelical than the Religious & Ethics Newsweekly poll. But regardless of definitions, it seems clear that evangelicals are not yet flocking to the Democratic Party.

The long-term is another matter entirely. This year alone, there have been some indications that evangelicals no longer have the old zest for right-wing social crusades. An interesting Washington Post article earlier this year documented the relatively muted evangelical outcry against gay marriage. Although some conservatives blame the lethargy on the Bush administration's less than full-throated support for a constitutional marriage amendment, others contend the issue just isn't as frenzy-inducing as previously thought:

"As much as evangelicals and other Christians are bothered by gay marriage, it may not be their top priority. Like everybody else, they worry about Iraq and the economy," [said John C. Green, a professor at Akron University who studies evangelicals and politics]…

Marvin Olasky, editor of World, the largest evangelical newsmagazine, said he is not sure that his 135,000 subscribers want to read much about it, either. "We've run three Iraq covers in a row," he said. "We've had some coverage of it [same-sex marriage], but it's not our foremost concern."

Meanwhile, some conservative evangelicals are clamoring for the Bush administration to pay more attention to global warming. The next wave of religious battles might well be fought over Kyoto rather than cloning.

Is all this evidence of a trend? To be sure, evangelicals remain fearsome fighters on social issues. But if the NAE guidelines prove influential, the country may well see a growing number of evangelicals pay less attention to the culture wars, and more attention to broad economic and international issues. On such matters, evangelicals would potentially be more open to compromise with their erstwhile Democratic foes. They may never be swing voters. Still, the new evangelicals could go a long ways towards mending America's bitter partisan divide.