God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat. Certain fundamentalists have forgotten this basic truth, and as a result their influence over Christians has begun to fade.
Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other extreme fundamentalists are losing credibility among the faithful by putting loyalty to party before loyalty to scripture and ignoring the fact that Christians are growing more concerned about an expanding set of moral issues. These two leaders in particular have seriously overstated their case in claims that God has virtually ordained George W. Bush as a divinely selected candidate. And the Bush campaign has seriously overstepped the proper boundaries of church and state by suggesting that conservative churches give them their congregational directories. This political alliance favors partisanship over Christian ethics and turns congregations into the Republican Party at prayer.
A backlash has begun, even among evangelicals. A diverse coalition, including prominent evangelical leaders, just published a statement that some people of faith will vote for President Bush and some for Sen. Kerry for reasons deeply rooted in Christian values (see p. 35). Rev. Falwell now has only a 44 percent approval rating among evangelicals. By contrast, Pope John Paul IIwho speaks with equal conviction about abortion, peace, and poverty, regardless of partisan impacthas a 60 percent approval rating among evangelicals, a group that was once the most anti-Catholic in the country. Indeed, in a poll earlier this year, Bush held only a 4-point advantage over Sen. Kerry among evangelicals.
The ideological shift became clear in this summers "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility," an unprecedented call to social action from the National Association of Evangelicals. In contrast to the Falwell and Robertson era, evangelicals are showing moral leadership in the fight against global poverty, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, and sustainability of Gods earth.
These changes represent both a reaction against overt partisanship and a desire to apply Christian ethics to a broader set of issues. Many people of faith have grown weary of the fundamentalists attempts to narrow the moral litmus test to abortion and gay marriage. For example, when likely voters were asked in a recent poll whether they would rather hear a candidates position on poverty or on gay marriage, 75 percent chose poverty. Only 17 percent chose gay marriage.
ANY SERIOUS READING of the Bible points towards poverty as a religious issue, and candidates should always be asked by Christian voters how they will treat "the least of these." Stewardship of Gods earth is clearly a question of Christian ethics. Truth-telling is also a religious issue that should be applied to a candidates rationales for war, tax cuts, or any other policy, as is humility in avoiding the language of "righteous empire" which too easily confuses the roles of God, church, and nation.
War, of course, is also a deeply theological matter. The near unanimous opinion of religious leaders worldwide that the Iraq war failed to fit "just war" criteria should be an electoral issue for Christian voters, especially as the warnings from religious leaders have proven prophetically and tragically accurate. The "plagues of war," as the pope has referred to the continuing problems in Iraq, are, in part, a consequence of a "Christian president" simply not listening to the counsel of religious leaders who tried to speak to the White House. Their wisdom went unheeded. What has happened to the "consistent ethic of life," suggested by Catholic social teaching, which speaks against abortion, capital punishment, poverty, war, and a range of human rights abuses too often selectively respected by pro-life advocates?
The Religious Rights grip on public debates about values has been driven in part by a media that continues to give airtime to the loudest religious voices, rather than the most representative, leaving millions of Christians and other people of faith without a say in the values debate. But this is starting to change as progressive faith voices are speaking out with a confidence and moral urgency not seen for 25 years. Mobilized initially by the Iraq war, the prophetic groups have hit a new stride in efforts to combat poverty, militarism, and human suffering in places like Sudan.
In politics, the best interest of the country is served when the prophetic voice of religion is heardchallenging both right and left from consistent moral ground. The evangelical Christians of the 19th century combined revivalism with social reform, and helped lead movements for abolition and women suffragenot to mention the faith-based movement that directly preceded the rise of the Religious Right, namely the American civil rights movement led by the black churches.
The truth is that most of the important movements for social change in America have been fueled by religionprogressive religion. The stark moral challenges of our time have once again begun to awaken this prophetic tradition. As certain fundamentalists lose influence, nothing could be better for the health of both church and society than a return of the moral center that anchors our nation in a common humanity. If you listen, these voices can be heard rising again.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.