Fault Lines Widen Between Evangelicals and the GOP
The alliance of religious conservatives and the Republican Party, which has come to dominate American politics over the past three decades, is in trouble. At issue is a debate over what counts as "moral values." This coalition crisis has potential to significantly benefit the Democratic Party — unless progressives shoot themselves in the foot.
Evidence abounds that opposition to abortion and same-sex relationships, while still highly important, are no longer the unchallenged bellwether issues of conservative morality. Further, it is apparent that some evangelicals are not happy with GOP positions on the new matters. Consider two examples:
• The National Association of Evangelicals, an organization that represents 52 denominations with 30 million members across the country, in autumn 2004 issued an unrepentant call for religious believers to take "creation care" seriously. This outcome is well under way: A recent survey by the Evangelical Environmental Network found that 63 percent of U.S. evangelicals view global warming as a problem that requires immediate attention.
Over time, however, the NAE's push on environmental goals has been stonewalled by President Bush and Republican leaders in the House of Representatives. This prompted NAE Vice President Richard Cizik, in the Washington Monthly, to lament that whenever business and religious interests come into conflict in the GOP, business wins "[e]very time. Every single time.... We need to stop putting all of our eggs in one basket — that's just not good politics."
• Rick Warren, pastor of a Southern California megachurch and author of the multimillion bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life," has thrown his weight behind a campaign to fight global poverty and AIDS. In a widely circulated open letter last summer, Warren was joined by Billy Graham in declaring that global poverty "is an issue that rises far above mere politics. It is a moral issue ... a compassion issue.... America, as the most blessed nation on our planet, has the greatest obligation to help those who are stuck in poverty around the world."
The White House's lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina and continuing focus on tax cuts over social services have done little to impress Warren, who in January met with 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and told The Washington Post: "I'm worried that evangelicals be identified too much with one party or the other. When that happens, you lose your prophetic role of speaking truth to power. And you have to defend stupid things that leaders do."
The fractures between some leading evangelicals and the Republican Party occur in a context of reawakening of what some call the Religious Left. Mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics, Reform Jews, progressive Muslims and Unitarian Universalists came alive politically in opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and further mobilized in the 2004 electoral campaign. The best-selling books of Jim Wallis ("God's Politics") and Michael Lerner ("The Left Hand of God") show that religious progressive voices have a sizable, national following.
Now, the Democratic Party faces a defining moment. If religious progressives are visibly back in the public arena and some key evangelical leaders are willing to consider options beyond the Republican Party, can the Democratic Party provide a hospitable home? Can the many secular Democratic activists, who in recent decades have developed a conception of religion that is less than favorable, break bread with religiously motivated voters? In turn, can people of religious faith show the humility and respect for differing views that would help them to be welcomed in the party?
The American public has its doubts, according to Pew Research Center public opinion data. In May 2003, a random sampling of U.S. adults was asked if each of the major political parties was "friendly" to religious faith. More than half, 52 percent, said the Republican Party was "friendly" toward religion, while 42 percent said the same about the Democratic Party. Two years later in June 2005, in response to the same question, 55 percent said Republicans were friendly toward religion — but the number who said the same about Democrats had dropped to 29 percent.
Such an impression of the Democratic Party was unthinkable only a few decades ago. Religious and secular individuals labored side by side in the nation's greatest modern accomplishment — the civil-rights movement. At lunch counters across the South, in the marches for reproductive autonomy, and in the gay-rights Stonewall Rebellion in New York, whether someone believed in God was not a defining concern. That was as it should be.
May the Democratic Party again become a big tent, in which secular and religious adherents come together. And may the result again be world-changing progressive accomplishments that advance liberty, justice and equality for all.
David Domke is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and head of journalism at the University of Washington. He is the author of "God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the 'War on Terror,' and the Echoing Press" (Pluto Press, 2004). He will speak on religious progressive values and American politics at Kirkland Congregational United Church of Christ at 7:30 p.m. on April 6.