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 had made. “I was at the last convention,” he recalled. “There was one faith meeting. It was a sad little affair.” 2004 marked a low point in the strained relationships between liberals and believers. John Kerry, a lifelong Catholic, sounded awkward talking about his faith, and came close to being denied communion for supporting abortion. His defeat confirmed the power of America’s 50m-plus evangelicals, almost one quarter of the adult population. Regular churchgoers voted overwhelmingly for Republicans, as did more than three-quarters of so-called “values voters” (those who said “moral values” were most important in choosing a candidate). Bush picked up the same share of evangelicals and more than half of Catholics. Church attendance became one of the most reliable predictors of voting intention. “Many liberals discovered God,” noted commentator EJ Dionne, “in the exit polls after the 2004 election.”
Politics has always divided America’s religious traditions. Before the second world war Catholics voted mostly for Democrats while mainline (Anglican) Protestants tended to be Republican. Today Catholics, who at 24 per cent of Americans are the country’s largest denomination, split roughly evenly. Non-evangelical Protestants do likewise. Race is also a factor: African American Protestants, including evangelicals, are strongly Democratic, as are Jewish voters. But it was the racially-inspired mass migration of white, southern evangelical Protestants from the Democratic to Republican camps in the 1970s that made evangelicals the most important and influential religious group in America.
Republican svengali Karl Rove quickly recognised their importance, and took to studying their movements. He worked out that there should have been 19m of them voting Republican, and instead there were just 15m. Republicans had long cultivated links with the religious right, but in the lead up to 2004, they made unprecedented efforts to hunt down these lost 4m. Large sums were spent recruiting preachers and churchgoers. Churches launched voter registration drives, built e-mail lists and distributed millions of voter guides. Republicans ramped up rhetoric on issues like abortion and stem cell research, and tempted Christians to the polls through ballot initiatives—local referendums on explosive issues like gay marriage—in swing states. Evangelical voters became foot soldiers for the Republican party.
Following 2004, however, these close links became strained. President Bush’s popularity plummeted, falling below 30 per cent as the Iraq war deteriorated. Religious leaders complained that Republicans failed to deliver on promises, especially to curb abortion. Moreover, evangelical leaders themselves began to look tainted by power. The former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed found his political aspirations undone by links to disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ted Haggard, head of the influential National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), resigned following a juicy scandal involving gay prostitution and crystal meth. Jerry Falwell passed away. Many of the most celebrated organisations of the Christian right—the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and the Promise Keepers—were reduced in size and influence.
After 2004 a growing divide also became visible between these fading evangelical leaders, and their previously loyal supporters. Randy Brinson heads Redeem the Vote, a group set up to register religious voters that was influential in turning out voters for Bush. After the election, he says: “we realised that the evangelical community was more heterogeneous… People thought Christians were only interested in small government and low taxes. But we found many wanted to hear about education, keeping the environment clean and ensuring the middle class was represented.” Meanwhile, in the 2008 Republican primary, “ordinary Christian voters saw their leaders working for Mitt Romney…. who represented everything about rich, out-of-touch country club Republicans they didn’t like.” Brinson instead used his organisation to promote Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a politician who could, as Brinson puts it, talk the language of “WalMart people, not Wall Street people.” Evangelical voters, he thought, were ready to engage on a broader range of issues.
Other commentators took the argument a stage further. Polls consistently show that only one in ten white evangelicals self-identify as liberal. Half are conservative, leaving around 40 per cent in the moderate middle. A series of books published after 2004 argued that this group could be courted by the Democrats. First came Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics. He attacked the right for hijacking abortion and gay marriage, but was equally critical of Democrats for their inability to use a language appropriate for religious voters. Wallis, and his organisation Sojourners, had been arguing for a more tolerant, liberal form of evangelicalism since the 1970s. In the aftermath of Kerry’s defeat, he suddenly found himself an audience, and a place on the bestseller list.
Subsequent books by Time magazine’s Amy Sullivan and EJ Dionne of the Washington Post built on Wallis’s theme. Dionne’s Souled Out argued simply that “the era of the religious right is over” citing both “fatal setbacks during George W Bush’s second term” and the decision of figures like Rick Warren to “disentangle their great movements from a [Republican] political machine.” All three books argued that religious voters cared about a broader spectrum of social and international issues than had been previously understood. If Democrats could fix their tin ear to the concerns of faith voters, and copy Republican techniques to reach out to churches, they would be well placed to win them over.
Even America’s evangelicals have always been more varied than their fiery, conservative public profile. A small segment, led by people like Jim Wallis, have been longtime liberal advocates. But the most important change in recent years has been a split between the values of new “sunbelt” and old “southern” evangelicals. In few places is the face of new American evangelicalism seen more clearly than in Rick Warren’s sprawling Saddleback mega-church in California’s Orange County. The 120-acre complex resembles a university campus, with sprawling lawns and a central main street. At its heart lies a “worship centre,” with 4,000 seats. Giant television screens, PowerPoint presentations and rousing music are ubiquitous; crucifixes and bibles are not. Worshippers can choose between Christian rock in the Overdrive tent, Hawaiian music in the Ohana zone, while ¡El Encuentro! caters for Hispanics. There’s a three-story children’s centre, and the church has a 1,500-strong school. Before a service, guests, many in beach gear, grab breakfast in the cafe. Television screens flash with offers of seemingly unevangelical services for Aids victims, or support for family planning. Sermons include plenty of audience participation, and anyone unhappy with their experience can fill in feedback cards. “20,000 people come every weekend,” Warren once said. “It’s like a city, and I’m like the mayor.”
Much of the cost of running the $20m church is met by the proceeds of Warren’s wildly successful first book, The Purpose Driven Life. Published in 2002, the book’s promise of salvation through a handy “40-day spiritual journey” found favour with churchgoers and celebrities alike. Readers seemed drawn to its rather banal message of the need to move beyond material concerns, and find a higher calling through engagement with faith and community. Warren claims the book is an “anti-self-help book.” Its bullet point lists and easily digestible summaries nonetheless owe a debt to regular airport self-improvement manuals. It sold at least 30m copies: more than any work of American non-fiction of the last decade.
Theologian Harvey Cox thinks such innovations are key to the success of Warren’s more liberal, relaxed brand of theology. “Its all about market share. These churches are in competition for many of the same people, on the ground and through the media. The competition is fierce.” A believer in market research, Warren spent time studying America’s largest churches. He and his wife also went door to door, interviewing local residents. Church, people told him, was neither fun nor rewarding. To change this Saddleback became one the first churches in America to combine glitzy services with the chance to join more intimate groups—or cells—of around half a dozen members. His church now operates thousands of such small groups in more than 100 cities, all carefully tailored to match the interests and profile of the worshippers. Equally central to the churches’ growth is Warren’s ability to franchise his material, claiming to have trained half a million pastors in close to a hundred countries.
Warren’s organisational innovation was matched by his ability to replace the fire and brimstone rhetoric of southern evangelicals with a softer theology emphasising self-help and good living. In the early 20th century The Fundamentals—the set of essays from which fundamentalism took its name—taught Christians to shun material advancement and stand apart from a corrupt, vice-ridden world. Such views lost favour as America grew richer. Under the guise of the “Gospel of Wealth” or “prosperity theology,” evangelicals reconciled piety with big houses and fancy cars. The spirit that drove the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition became both fiercely moralistic and unashamedly materialistic. Warren’s insight was to see that this new wealth and success, especially evident in California, created spiritual problems of their own. Richard Parker, an expert on American religion at Harvard, notes that “Saddleback parishioners look fabulous. They are toned, tanned and driving Porsches. But they are a payment away from losing the house, on their fourth spouse, and living a very fragile life.” Warren’s theology of everyday self-help seemed especially designed for those struggling to cope with a fast-moving consumer society. He found a type of religious experience that suited a new generation. Unschooled in America’s raging culture wars, they were open to new messages about Christian concern for social issues. But it was only after 2004 that he, and others, began to take these concerns into the political arena.
In 2003, Warren’s wife Kay visited Mozambique, and met a woman dying from HIV who had been ejected from her village. Describing the experience as a kind of conversion, Kay persuaded her husband to use the church’s influence to promote the global HIV epidemic as a Christian concern. The couple began an annual Aids summit at Saddleback, inviting a mix of evangelical leaders and high profile politicians. Gradually they joined other evangelicals in widening their agenda, to include new campaigns to end sex trafficking, genocide in Darfur, and torture. In the face of fierce criticism from more traditional evangelicals, Warren made headlines by inviting Obama to speak at one such conference in 2006. The following year Hillary Clinton was his guest. And in August 2008 he again flexed his political muscle by staging the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, the first occasion on which McCain and Obama shared a stage during the campaign. (Warren’s next forum will feature a turn from Tony Blair.)
Warren’s first steps into politics were mirrored by a new activism among more explicitly liberal evangelical groups in the aftermath of the 2004 defeat. Progressively-minded religious leaders, realising that they had been outgunned, decided to set up new institutions to counter the religious right. Two big new organisations were launched in early 2005: first, Faith in Public Life, targeting evangelicals, and second, Catholics In Alliance For the Common Good. Rather than being set up explicitly to support Democrats, the groups aimed to engage all parties in an “agenda for the common good,” focusing on social and global justice issues. The groups began to support affiliates in swing states, with names like We Believe Colorado and We Believe Ohio.
Broader changes in policy quickly followed. Especially important was a battle over the importance of climate change. American evangelicals have often sounded sceptical of claims about global warming. But some evangelicals now began to argue that “creation care” should be a more important value among religious groups, and a more pressing concern for government. In a secret meeting in late 2006, Richard Cizik, head of government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), brought together religious leaders and scientists at Melhana Plantation in Georgia. Twenty eight of the participants (including Rick Warren) agreed to put their name to a joint statement from the NAE and Harvard expressing concerns about climate change, the destruction of habitat and pollution. A rival group of 25 conservative evangelicals subsequently produced a statement demanding that Cizik be fired. The NAE refused. Ron Stief, from Faith in Public Life, thinks the battle was perhaps the single most important change in the development of a new, liberal-leaning evangelical approach to politics.
The true beginning of the religious right occurred when Republican activists in the 1970s, realising white evangelicals were ready to defect, went searching for converts. In the 2008 election, Democrats are learning to do the same thing. This has been helped by Obama’s personal ease in talking about his faith. His books go into detail about his conversion, while his speeches are sprinkled with references to scripture. At Warren’s forum, Obama spoke comfortably about his belief that “Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him.” And this religious language is now matched by an increasingly sophisticated, well-funded campaign to contact and persuade religious voters.
Obama’s campaign HQ is based on the 11th floor of an otherwise unremarkable skyscraper in downtown Chicago. His religious outreach team sit in a corner decorated with colourful signs ranging from “Baptists for Barack” to “Catholics for Change.” These half a dozen operatives—linked to other teams across the country—co-ordinate the campaign’s increasingly sophisticated attempts to work with Groups like Faith in Public Life, and to convince religiously-minded voters in churches like Warren’s.
During the 2006 elections, conservative Democrats like Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey won elections against the odds in part by finessing their message to avoid offending values voters, and by developing outreach operations courting them. Obama learned this lesson. His team leads regular Friday prayer calls and keeps contact with leaders from all denominations. Hundreds of “American Values” house parties build bridges with religious voters. Campaign workers actively recruit religious leaders, who in turn tell their supporters that Democratic policies on healthcare or social justice are in line with their religious beliefs. And the campaign keeps a steady stream of religious stories flowing to the media and religious bloggers.
Can a combination of such savvy Democratic outreach and newly-concerned evangelicals make a difference in the election? Dan Nejfelt, an advisor at Faith in Public Life, thinks the activities of groups like his are already being felt. He points to the recent Republican convention in St Paul, where both Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani mocked Obama’s background as a community organiser. “We know from our work,” Nejfelt says, “that congregation-based community organising is at the heart of what churches do. So we immediately e-mailed all of our people, and found religious figures willing to talk to the media about why this was insulting to people of faith.” Nejfelt’s argues that these sorts of efforts have succeeded in pushing a more progressive slant to press coverage of religion in the campaign.
But while quantity of media coverage may point in one direction, polls so far show that few evangelicals or Catholics are shifting allegiances. Some show a drop-off in enthusiasm for Republicans. Yet those dissatisfied with the GOP tend to become independent, not Democrat. Worryingly for Obama, Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, says evangelicals currently favour McCain at exactly the same rate as they backed President Bush in 2004. (Lake suggests that the intensity of support for McCain, however, is much lower.) Only a small shift in these groups’ support could make a big electoral difference. But, as yet, four years of Democratic fretting, outreach and homely God talk show few signs of paying an electoral dividend.
Moreover, claims about the death of the religious right should be treated with scepticism. Organisations like Focus on the Family remain rich and influential. The torpor affecting the evangelical right in the last year is at least partly explained by the lack of an obvious standard-bearer. Evangelical leaders split during the Republican primary: Reverend Pat Robertson surprised many by backing pro-choice Giuliani, others threw their lot in, unenthusiastically, with Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson. Ultimately, however, this was mostly a disagreement over which Republican to choose, rather than whether to support a Republican at all. Many senior evangelicals were unhappy with the choice of McCain. However, concerted efforts in recent months, including the adoption of a hardline position on abortion, has won converts. The choice of Sarah Palin, in particular, has enthused evangelicals. Her appointment led James Dobson, the influential head of Focus on the Family, to reverse his decision not to back McCain. Equally, the sharp increase in McCain’s fundraising following her introduction suggests that, while not the force it once was, there is life in the religious right. (Interestingly, Palin was also reported to have called Rick Warren, for spiritual guidance, after her name was added to the Republican ticket.)
A further issue is worth noting. The religious right was slavishly conservative, often going so far as to suggest that God backed specific Republican proposals, such as repealing taxes on inherited wealth. Even if Democrats do win over some evangelicals, they are likely to find them less reliable. In part this is because the new generation of progressively-inclined evangelicals are far from card-carrying liberals. Their agenda now includes traditionally Democratic concerns, but few have become pro-choice, or pro-gay rights. Their leaders remain culturally conservative. Perhaps most importantly, it is not clear that the new breed of evangelicals will develop a more liberal approach to social policy, and the role of the state. Evangelicals support a role for their own organisations in solving social problems, for instance through President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Yet in fixing many issues they have come to care about, including climate change and economic inequality, the new leaders’ backing for state involvement remains unclear.
Progressive evangelicals watched for a generation as Republican strategists manipulated faith issues for their own electoral gain. Such groups have no desire to see power-hungry Democrats do the same. Obama may begin to win small numbers of evangelical voters, but a cohesive religious left is unlikely to follow. Evangelicals, instead, could become America’s swing vote. Many may have hoped that the decline of the religious right would lead to a secular turn in US politics. In fact, the opposite is true: the role of faith in public life could become more important than ever before.
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