Not All It's Cracked Up To Be
To hear the press tell it, the so-called values voter is disenchanted with the Republican Party and will stay home and pray for our country on Election Day '08 if the GOP nominee ends up being a cross-dressing home wrecker—or, God forbid, a Mormon. In October, New York Times Magazine gave the tale an epic reiteration with a cover story by David D. Kirkpatrick heralding a great "evangelical crackup." The "extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush ended in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments," Kirkpatrick writes, and that desperation is supposedly sparking reactions from general disenchantment to leftward desertion.
But rather than pinpointing a genuine political trend, the piece just triggers a nagging sense of déjà vu, one confirmed by a search of the Times archives: In a February 2000 Times Magazine cover story, Margaret Talbot concluded that "it cannot be denied that as a political force, the religious right is flagging" and described "a newfound disillusionment with politics." Now, in 2007, Kirkpatrick calls 2004 the zenith of evangelicals' influence and says that the religious right is once again "cracking up," facing "end times." If this convoluted chronology is to be believed, then no other political demographic has ever vacillated as impressively between retreat and triumph.
The evangelical right is actually doing no such thing. These trends are largely invented, indicative of a media knack for chronicling evangelical impact in absurdly narrow cycles. Contrary to Talbot's assertion in 2000, the Christian Coalition's financial troubles and Gary Bauer's withdrawal from the presidential race didn't signal a decline of the religious right. Karl Rove may have used evangelicals to defeat John Kerry in 2004, but the media's inflation of that victory to mythical proportions is a wild overstatement of the facts. And this year, Kirkpatrick overshoots his case by suggesting that all the grumbling over presidential candidates prophesies Christianity's political apocalypse.
Instead, evangelicals, a notoriously diverse and fastidious demographic, are doing what they always do: bickering their way to a compromise over a candidate.
It's misleading to cite evangelicals' lack of an early favorite as a sign that the voting bloc is weakening. They were equally dissatisfied with the 2000 Republican primary crop, and they grumbled then just like they do now. Gary Bauer endorsed McCain, writing on the Times op-ed page that evangelicals are "independent-minded and diverse," while Dr. James Dobson hesitantly supported Bush. Evangelicals "saw Bush as one of them," according to a story Kirkpatrick wrote in 2000, but that hardly sealed the deal for the then-Texas governor. Bush and McCain both refused to take orders from evangelicals, and, just like now, the religious right was suspicious. Thanks partially to McCain's decision to insult evangelical leaders, Bush took the evangelical vote, but only after trading early primary victories.
The evangelical conversation about 2008 actually is producing some interesting debates, but, unfortunately, the truly interesting stuff has yet to be fully addressed. Kirkpatrick senses a "philosophical rift" in the younger generation of evangelicals, and he's got that much right. Young Christians indeed have a more redemptive view of society, rejecting the notion that America is slouching toward Gomorrah and must be warned regularly and loudly. They are interested in making society a better place in the here and now, as opposed to simply converting the lost.
That shift might be related to their embrace of Reformed theology, a doctrine that encourages believers to acknowledge that they are all inherently sinful and have received undeserved grace (thus making them respond less judgmentally to others' sexual behavior). Reformed theology also rebuffs the idea that behavior makes one righteous, effectively discouraging the equation of patriotism and blind party activism with piety. A 2006 Pew survey shows that college-educated conservatives are more likely to be less conservative on issues like gay marriage, stem-cell research, and contraception than those who've completed only some college or high school. And according to a study by Barna group, a Christian research organization, young born-again Christians are 15 percent more likely than their elders to find homosexual behavior morally acceptable. Even many of my college-age evangelical friends at the conservative Christian school Patrick Henry College see popular films, attend rock concerts, and have no objection to drinking or dancing.
This is a highly significant trend within evangelicalism—arguably the evangelical story of the moment. But it doesn't quite have the political implications that the media suggest, namely new stirrings of affection for the Democratic Party. Young Christians are interested in more than "two or three issues," as left-leaning pastor Bill Hybels contends in the Times piece, but they are smart, educated, and usually swing conservative for reasons much deeper than the Big Two (abortion and gay rights). In my time as a student at Patrick Henry College, I have witnessed countless students moderate from "Republican politics is next to godliness" to "we shouldn't be blindly following a specific party or leader." Despite that transformation, not one of them has ever campaigned or voted for a Democrat. They are disenchanted with the GOP for its abandonment of fiscal conservatism and limited government, but they'd consider voting for Democrats an even bigger step back. If there is a political trend to be reported here, it's the fact that increasingly progressive young Christians will almost certainly balance the Republican Party, insisting on a broader focus than clichéd morality battles.
But this does not mean that they're going to substantially reject their Republican roots. The "crackup" narrative assumes that Christians' primary political focus is moral issues. That misinterpretation perpetuates myths like the clout of the "evangelical left," a tiny but vocal fringe that tacks Scripture references onto MoveOn.org talking points and gets more attention in the press than it does in the mainstream evangelical community. Jim Wallis, whom Kirkpatrick calls the "lonely voice" of the evangelical left, argues strenuously for Christian nonpartisanship, but he also clearly sees left-wing activism as "God's politics." Wallis himself tries to sell the idea of a mass evangelical exodus from the right, but even he lacks the evidence or the following to lend his claims any credence. Rather than being inspired to desert to the left, most evangelicals see Wallis' arguments as a shallow fad (as a pastoral-student friend of mine put it, "socialism shrouded in Jesus talk").
There's no disputing the fact that evangelicals feel burned by their ineffective intimacy with the Republican Party and are increasingly convinced that church and politics shouldn't have such an intertwined relationship. Evangelicals young and old are not retreating or switching parties, but they're carefully weighing their involvement and attempting to bring it into conformity with an all-encompassing commitment to their theology. It may be mincing words, but in this case, the truth of the story depends on definitions. And in that respect, the mainstream press still doesn't get evangelicals and how to cover them without repetitive and questionable "cycle" narratives. Calling maturation a meltdown misses the mark—and the story.