The Common Good

Emerging evangelical center may decide 2008 election

Date: February 19, 2008

Last summer I completed a book arguing that an evangelical center is emerging in American life and that it shows signs of displacing the vaunted but fading "Christian right" in the hearts and minds of American evangelicals--especially among younger and non-white Christian believers. Events occurring during this presidential campaign demonstrate this is happening already.

The factual argument of my book, The Future of Faith in American Politics, is that the American evangelical community shares core Christian beliefs but does not (and never did) exhibit political consensus. I argue that besides the widely recognized evangelical right, symbolized by figures such as James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell, and the evangelical left, symbolized by activists such as Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, today there is emerging a visible and increasingly powerful evangelical center, whose most influential figures are probably the megachurch pastor Rick Warren and the lobbyist Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals. My book names dozens of figures who can be placed in the various camps.

The evangelical center shares with the right its deep opposition to abortion, concern about the decline of marriage and the eroding well-being of children in our society, worries about the moral content of mass media, and rejection of the morality of sex outside of heterosexual marriage. It rejects, however, the right’s entanglement with and loyalty to the Republican Party, its relatively narrow focus on issues primarily related to sexuality, and its mood of angry nostalgia and aggrieved entitlement about the Christian role in American society.

The evangelical center, in turn, shares with the evangelical left a strong emphasis on the plight of the poor, attention to racism as a moral and policy issue, opposition to the routine resort to war by the United States, a high priority to creation care and acceptance of the seriousness of climate change, commitment to finding a humane solution to the immigration issue, and conviction that human-rights commitments require wholehearted opposition to torture in the U.S. war on terror. It tends to differ from the left in its more careful commitment to political independence, its stronger and more thorough attention to issues of abortion, family, and sexuality, and its willingness to support the moral legitimacy of some (though not all) U.S. military actions.

In some ways the towering presence of the evangelical right has made it difficult until recently for any kind of alternative voices to gain a broad cultural hearing. For many, the word "evangelical" has equaled "Christian right." For just as long as there has been an evangelical right (about 35 years), a small and largely ignored evangelical left has sought to carve out an alternative. Now it is time for all cultural observers to acknowledge that the evangelical political landscape is fragmented along right/center/left lines -- just like, for example, Catholics, females and Hispanics.

Polling data already available when I wrote the book led me to argue that non-white evangelicals and younger evangelicals definitely skewed in a centrist or more liberal direction overall than did older white evangelicals. This led me to project that generational change and increasing demographic diversity among the evangelical population in the United States would lead to the emergence of a strong and visible evangelical center, a more muscular evangelical left, and in some cases a center-left coalition representing half or more of American evangelicals.

These days everyone is talking about the presidential campaign and especially how evangelical voting behavior has been evolving. Though there is a long journey awaiting us between now and November, outcomes so far seem to confirm at least parts of the argument I am proposing.

On the Republican side, the evangelical right was unable to coalesce around a candidate who reflected their classic positions. Perhaps the closest ones were the long-forgotten Sam Brownback and Alan Keyes. Only now is the evangelical right showing signs of closing rank around Mike Huckabee as an alternative to John McCain. But it was a long time coming, and this was no doubt because the pre-2008 Huckabee record exhibited centrist or progressive strains on such issues as immigration, the death penalty, and economic inequality. Even during the campaign he has made what are to centrists promising comments about issues such as climate change and ending torture. As it stands, the two remaining Republican candidates reflect at least a number of commitments that point toward the center rather than the right, much to the frustration of the right.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both offer policy stances rooted in moral commitments sometimes openly traced to Christian values. Their positions on such issues as torture, poverty, health care, immigration, war and climate reflect stances held by both the evangelical center and left. To the extent that either or both offer clear statements on the moral tragedy of abortion and concrete policies to reduce the number of abortions, they may well succeed in gaining the support of many centrist evangelical voters who are genuine independents and could consider supporting a candidate of either party. It is not clear whether the homosexuality issue will prove as salient to evangelicals, especially centrists, as it did in 2004.

It is quite possible that the votes of centrist evangelicals—perhaps representing as many as one-third of our nation’s massive evangelical community—will decide the election this fall.

I believe that the emerging evangelical center represents a maturing of the Christian public voice in American life. This is a more peaceable, forward-looking, holistic and independent approach to politics than what has come to carry the evangelical label. Its emergence is good for our nation and for evangelicals. Centrist evangelicals bear watching in this election and beyond.