Before the last presidential election, members of Woodland Hills Church bombarded their pastor with requests to distribute pro-Republican voter guides and introduce conservative politicians from the pulpit. Instead, the Rev. Gregory Boyd launched into a series of six sermons titled “The Cross and the Sword” denouncing the “nationalistic and political idolatry” of the Christian Right. The fervor shocked the suburban St. Paul megachurch’s conservative congregation and eventually landed Boyd on the front page of the New York Times.
There has been no shortage of books denouncing evangelicals’ increasingly prominent role in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Andrew Sullivan laments the rise of “Christianists”—a term some see as an attempt to compare religious conservatism to radical Islam—while former First Things editor Damon Linker has warned that “theocons” have “secular America under siege.” But some of the recent criticism has come from evangelicals themselves.
In May, Boyd published The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church. He was followed by Randall Balmer, a Barnard College religion professor and self-described “passionate evangelical,” who wrote Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. While secularist critics of the Christian Right fear their religious rhetoric portends theocracy, these evangelicals worry their co-religionists are compromising their faith by connecting the Gospel too closely to a secular political agenda.
Among theologically conservative Protestants, Boyd and Balmer remain political outliers. In 2004, 78 percent of white evangelicals voted to re-elect President Bush. At 72 percent, they were only slightly less supportive of Republican congressional candidates. While the GOP’s fortunes have declined nationally, a May Pew Research Forum poll found that the number of evangelicals identifying as Republicans has actually increased during 2006.
Indeed, Boyd’s pre-election attack on the Religious Right was poorly received by some members of his own congregation. One-fifth of Woodland Hills’ 5,000 members left the church. A fundraising drive conducted at the time of the controversial sermons fell $3 million short of it goal, forcing staff reductions.
While most evangelicals aren’t ready to abandon the Republican Party, many are open to a conversation about what Christian political involvement should look like. A changing of the guard is apparent. The most prominent leaders of the Religious Right—Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson—are senior citizens. With the exception of Dobson, their influence appears to be on the wane even among fellow Christian conservatives. Ralph Reed, once considered a successor, suffered a setback when his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal cost him his party’s nomination for lieutenant governor in Georgia.
A new generation of evangelical leadership—Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, and Joel Osteen—is less overtly political and interested in issues not usually associated with conservative activism. While still opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, these ministers are far more likely to speak out about AIDS, poverty, and environmental protection.
Warren has set up three foundations to distribute 90 percent of the proceeds from his bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. The focus areas include alleviating poverty and treating AIDS victims in developing countries; none of the foundations are involved in lobbying for confirming the president’s judicial nominees or promoting conservative political causes. In June, he brought together such prominent evangelicals as Billy Graham to participate in an open letter to Bush about poverty. Warren wrote, “I deeply believe that if we as evangelicals remain silent and do not speak up in defense of the poor, we lose our credibility and our right to witness about God’s love for the world.”
In October 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) adopted an agenda that included the usual social issues—prayer, the right to life, preserving traditional marriage—and fighting global warming. The move elicited criticism from some religious conservatives, most notably James Dobson, who argued that the global-warming stance would divert finite resources and separate evangelicals from important political allies in the culture war. As Tom Minnery, vice president for public policy at Dobson’s Focus on the Family, puts it, “When thousands of unborn children are dying every day, global warming comes in a very distant second as a priority issue.”
Others questioned the NAE’s assumption that global warming is caused by human behavior and easily corrected by public policy. “I think 75 to 80 percent of evangelicals would disagree that America causes global warming,” says American Family Association President Tim Wildmon. But key NAE leaders aren’t backing down. Speaking at an interfaith meeting in New York, the group’s vice president for government affairs, Richard Cizik, spoke of “isolationist” evangelicals who fail to “extend support of the community to addressing poverty and the environment.”
Yet some traditional religious conservatives are getting on board. Robertson recently declared himself “a convert” on global warming. The political organization he founded in 1989, the Christian Coalition of America, has also begun looking into environmental issues. “We are going to have a new mission, a new vision—much more broad-focused,” Christian Coalition President Roberta Coombs told the Associated Press. But she acknowledged some supporters “don’t like comments I’ve made about the environment and some of these other issues.”
Coombs was alluding to three state chapters of her organization that withdrew in part because of her decision to branch out into nontraditional policy areas. “We now have a conservative president, conservative Congress, and conservative judges,” contends Christian Coalition spokeswoman Michelle Coombs. “Of course we believe in the core social issues, but Christians need to broaden their focus.”
Despite the infamous Washington Post line that evangelicals are “easy to command,” the Religious Right’s grassroots supporters might not be listening. While the evangelical vote has grown in size and relative importance, many of the political groups dedicated to organizing it have declined. The Christian Coalition, for example, has assumed a lower profile and is reportedly $1 million in debt.
Evangelical Protestants haven’t always been on the Right. Balmer notes that evangelicals played a large role in both the crusade to abolish slavery and the women’s suffrage movement, which he labels progressive causes. In the middle of the 20th century, after the Scopes trial and the failure of Prohibition, many evangelicals largely withdrew from the political sphere. Their leaders became less inclined to preach about politics. Billy Graham met with presidents but was bipartisan and usually circumspect about policy. He was a staunch anti-communist and, after a long period of neutrality, became cautiously supportive of the civil-rights movement in the mid-1960s. But Graham was not publicly identified as a political crusader.
Over the course of the 1960s, perceived secularist encroachments—Supreme Court rulings against prayer and Bible instruction in public schools, changes in sexual mores—produced a socially conservative backlash in which evangelicals eventually played a large part. This backlash intensified with the legalization of abortion and the rise of the gay-rights movement during the 1970s. Still, evangelicals were slow to enter the Republican fold. Most voted for Democrat Jimmy Carter, a proud born-again Christian, in the 1976 presidential election.
Once in office, Carter did little to satisfy evangelicals’ growing political concerns. Additionally, his administration supported a move by the IRS to revoke the tax exemptions of de facto segregated Christian schools in the South. How important this was to the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s is the subject of some debate. Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee, dismisses it as “a Beltway urban legend.”
“Look, I was there,” Land says. “It is absurd to claim that a mass movement concerned about the right to life was started over Christian schools that maybe 5 percent of our followers had children attending.”
In any event, evangelicals shifted to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and have been reliably in the GOP column ever since. Contributing a third of the Republicans’ 2004 vote, nearly four in ten party members are now evangelical. But a vocal minority has persisted in arguing that the GOP, as the party of the rich, isn’t the best vehicle for a Christian political witness. “There are 2,000 Bible verses that deal with caring for the poor,” says Balmer. “Jesus never mentioned abortion.”
The outcome of this debate may hinge on younger evangelicals, who have grown up in an era when the Religious Right was a fact of political life rather than a new innovation. “Some are less embedded in the subculture and will be less likely to hear the political cues,” says Laura Olson, a Clemson University political science professor who has studied the evolution of evangelical political involvement. “They will be no less committed to pro-family issues, but they’ll say, ‘Let’s talk about poverty, hunger, and the environment.’” Olson points out that even prominent liberal evangelicals—such leaders as Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo—oppose abortion and hold orthodox views about homosexuality.
Jessica Echard, executive director of Eagle Forum, is a young Christian conservative who believes the social issues will remain paramount. “I don’t see the evangelical base energized by these new issues,” she says. “They care about babies, marriage, and what their children see on TV.”
Some changes may be inevitable, however. “As the number of evangelicals has grown, they have become more like the society around them,” says Olson. “That will lead to a diversity of opinion on a lot of issues.” Peter Brown, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, agrees that on many issues “evangelicals are in line with the rest of mainstream America.” Yet Brown doesn’t foresee a real partisan shift among evangelical voters. “People vote based on values and comfort level,” he says. “There’s no evidence evangelicals are losing that comfort level with the Republicans just over the environment.”
John Green, an expert on religious voting trends at the University of Akron, raises a third possibility: that Republicans will keep the evangelical vote “by adjusting some of their positions.” Sen. Sam Brownback hopes to win the Christian Right vote in the 2008 primaries by combining a strong social conservatism with nontraditional positions on Third World poverty and the environment. In an interview with Christianity Today, former presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson, an evangelical, urged conservative Christians to focus on AIDS relief, assistance for Africa, and eradicating malaria.
When Pat Robertson is worried about global warming and a leading socially conservative senator is talking about AIDS, the prospect of a new Christian Right becomes impossible to entirely dismiss.