The Republican grip on America's powerful evangelicals is weakening. And Democrats are finally reaching out to God's faithful. But will this win them the election? And would it mean a secular shift in US politics—or the reverse?by James Crabtree / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
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A benediction followed Barack Obama’s closing speech at the Democratic convention in Denver. The audience, many already exiting, were asked to join in. Those who stayed may have been puzzled to see Pastor Joel Hunter—a conservative evangelical, registered Republican, staunch abortion opponent and one-time candidate to head the Christian Coalition of America—leading some 80,000 Democrats in prayer. Equally surprising, just before the convention, Obama and McCain met for their first public campaign appearance in a mega-church in California, for Pastor Rick Warren’s “Compassion Forum.” On the day Obama accepted his nomination, liberal evangelical activist Reverend Jim Wallis mused: “At this year’s Democratic convention, faith has become cool.”
The sight of high-profile evangelicals breaking bread with Democrats is but one in a series of striking changes in the relationship between America’s religious and political leaders over the last four years. In that time, Hunter, Warren, Wallis and other prominent evangelicals have begun to depart from firebrand predecessors like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, balancing campaigns against abortion with more liberal concerns over poverty, healthcare, climate change and HIV. This has prompted some commentators to predict the closing of the “God gap” between left and right, and the rise of a kinder, gentler form of American evangelicalism. Three trends give these claims credence: the decline of the leading institutions of America’s religious right; a generational change in the membership and leadership of US evangelical churches, and a new tactical appreciation for religion among Democratic campaigners. But, taken together, does this new strain of liberal evangelicalism really herald a new “religious left” to rival the once-dominant religious right? And if so, could it tip the balance in this year’s race for the White House?
The 2008 election marks the culmination of a four-year push to make Democrats more attractive to religious voters. Their Denver convention sometimes had the feeling of a revivalist meeting. The opening “interfaith gathering,” in front of 6,000 guests, saw sermons from three Catholics, three rabbis, and a seemingly endless further line-up of imams, Buddhists, and Pentecostals. Prayers from prominent pastors began and closed each day’s proceedings. Delegates could attend close to a dozen faith-based events, from wonky panel discussions to “faith caucus” meetings and prayer breakfasts. Democrats in Denver seemed born again.
Stephen Waldman, editor of the religious website Beliefnet, summed up the difference four years…