The Confession of a Young White Evangelical

By Timothy King 11-10-2008

Sorry Mr. Schmidt, as one of the campaign's top advisors, I've heard you worked hard to win me over, but I didn't vote for John McCain. For a generation your strategy worked like a charm. Since Reagan, the Republicans could count on us white evangelicals to come out to the polls organized and committed. In 2000, I wasn't old enough to vote, but it looked like we had gotten one of our own through the tough primaries and then on into the White House.

In 2004 white evangelicals repeated another close victory propelling another four years of George W. Bush. All that attention felt good, but the spotlight also started to show some cracks. There was an outcry among religious voters across the country when exit polls reduced "values" to a stance on gay marriage and abortion.

The cracks became more evident as polling coming up to the election showed that younger evangelicals were not toeing the party line like their parents had. Progressive Christian voices like Jim Wallis, Joel Hunter, Sam Rodriguez, and Otis Moss were speaking a different kind of language.

The choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate was a clear signal; the red carpet was being rolled out for white evangelicals once again. The culture wars ignited and the old reliable base was stirred up. Dr. Dobson published a letter from Obama's America in 2012 painting many evangelicals' worst nightmare and citing my generation's defection as the cause. He just might be right.

It should have worked. In the midst of all the stories about the increase in the youth vote, from 17 percent of the electorate to 18 percent, and the black vote, from 11 percent to13 percent, white evangelicals expanded our share of the electorate from 23 percnet to 26 percent. This huge increase of voters should have translated into a sweeping victory in 2008 as it had in both 2000 and 2004. What happened?

White evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 34 almost doubled their support for Obama over Kerry. This translates into a more than 1.5 million voter net gain in my demographic from 2004.

Dobson's letter backfired as it was posted and reposted on Facebook and MySpace pages of young faith voters across the country and "James Dobson Doesn't Speak for Me" groups started popping up. Sarah Palin found that fighting the same culture wars that have been fought for the past 40 years sure does stir up the base, but it's not going to grow it.

Through the power of his own story of faith and unprecedented outreach to religious voters, Obama had gains in every religious group. The face of faith is changing in this country. Many Cold War era Christians were looking to their faith and their church to protect them from hell, heathens, and communism. It was a religious philosophy fueled by fear of others. This gave Republican operatives the ability engineer electoral victory for decades.

There is a battle now for the definition of faith for a new generation of believers. The "old guard", who John McCain called the "agents of intolerance," will define faith in opposition to both Islam and radical terrorists. Faith, in their estimation, will still save you from hell, heathens, and lurking communists, but now you get the added bonus of protection from Muslims and Terrorists. It will certainly maintain a hold on many.

There will be alternatives. Alternatives that return to the message of Christ that our faith is built on hope and not fear. That we are commanded to love our neighbor not vilify them. They will preach that the church is not meant to build walls of protection from "others" but roots of transformation for the world. It will be these Christians, who will be on both sides of the aisles in coming elections, who will have the opportunity to redefine faith in public life for a country that sorely needs it.

We didn't roar in this election, but we made a difference. It is the difference the Religious Right feared but the country needs.

Tim King is the special assistant to the CEO for Sojourners.

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