alien & sedition.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
  It's Not Liberals Who Should Worry About Evangelicals

The American left has been subject to a good deal of unproductive speculation and fear-mongering when it comes to the question of evangelical Christians. We've been forced to listen to vacuous scoldings from the bobbleheaded purveyors of the conventional wisdom, who - evidence be damned - insist that Democrats must get right with something called "values voters" if they're ever to have chance at political success again. And from our own ranks we've been capitivated by waves of hysteria over the barbarians at the gates, as we fixate on the most titillatingly scary fundamentalists we can find.

An example of the latter phenomenon was last year's documentary Jesus Camp, which focused on an extremist Pentecostal summer camp in North Dakota. As an anecdotal record, the film was fascinating, but it blundered badly in its misconceived attempt to use the camp as a stand-in or leading indicator for American evangelicals generally. Framing the camp scenes with commentary from liberal radio host Mike Papantonio, the filmmakers moved directly from disturbing scenes of children being emotionally manipulated to dark warnings about how such radicalism is on the verge of taking over America. The film failed entirely to provide any useful context, to challenge its viewers to understand why fundamentalists see the world as they do, what differences there might be among fundamentalists and evangelicals generally, and whether the grandiose claims made by a Becky Fischer should in fact be taken at face value.

A much better starting point for understanding the political dynamics of American evangelicalism is Frances FitzGerald's excellent article in the current New York Review of Books, which examines how, over the past two or three years, moderate and progressive evangelical leaders have begun to take a more assertive role in public discourse. While not downplaying the pernicious influence of right-wing fundamentalism, FitzGerald observes that evangelicals as a whole are not nearly as conservative as many liberals fear, or as the right-wingers would like to believe. And in this context, the rise of the centrists holds a great deal of promise.

FitzGerald's article is worth reading just for its brief history of political evangelicalism in America, which demystifies the process by which groups like the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family have successively risen to positions of influence in US politics. But her critical point is that only a portion of American evangelicals can be described as genuinely right-wing fundamentalists. This has important ramifications:
[T]he polls that distinguish "traditionalist" evangelicals— defined as committed churchgoers who hold conservative religious beliefs—from their less observant and less theologically conservative brethren reveal significant ideological differences between the two groups. According to these surveys, traditionalists, who make up half of the evangelical population and represent the core constituency of the religious right, have far more conservative views on all issues than the rest.

Statistically, the extreme conservatism of the traditionalists skews the picture of the community as a whole. In fact, "modernist" evangelicals—defined as those who go to church infrequently and don't hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible—have more liberal views on all issues, including abortion and gay rights, than the American population as a whole, but there are relatively very few of them. "Centrists," or those who fall somewhere in the theological middle and make up almost half of all evangelicals, are no more conservative than Americans generally except on abortion and gay rights, and even on these issues they are far more moderate than the traditionalists.[9] In other words, half of the evangelical population doesn't see eye to eye with the other half. In the future the division may become more acute because while the Christian right leaders have become more ambitious and more aggressive as a result of their victories, centrist leaders have, for the first time, begun to assert themselves.
FitzGerald documents the recent efforts of ministers like Gergory Boyd, Joel Hunter, and Rich Nathan - mega-church pastors who have begun to de-emphasize sexual politics and the culture war, and to take strong positions on the centrality of poverty, racism, peace, global warming, and international development as issues of concern to Christians. She also documents how centrists and progressives have been able to assert these issues through the National Association of Evangelicals, working with people like Richard Cizik, the NAE's vice-president for governmental relations, who has
supported the experienced evangelical aid organizations World Relief and World Vision in lobbying for a major increase in US aid for development, debt relief for the poorest countries, cuts in domestic agricultural subsidies, and the inclusion of labor standards and human rights conditions in trade agreements. (Two years ago World Vision campaigned against the Central American Free Trade Agreement because it lacked such protections.) Centrist leaders have also lobbied the administration for more money to fund the global campaign against AIDS, and for a variety of human rights causes, including the deployment of a strong United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur.[12]
Even Rick Warren, the empire-building author of The Purpose-Driven Life, has focused his political interventions on such causes.

As FitzGerald acknowledges, we have yet to see these efforts result in a significant shift in the voting patterns of evangelicals - who supported Republicans in 2006 at the same rate as in other recent elections. But the right-wing evangelical political machine has been churning for 28 years, since the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979. The centrists and the progressives have only really been politically engaged for two or three years now. And clearly, there is fertile ground upon which they can work.

The darkest fear of most Republicans - the thing that lurks beneath their beds at night - is that the Democrats might one day neutralize abortion as a political issue. At the conservative summit, Laura Ingraham - with almost an audible shiver - asked audience members to imagine what would happen "if the Democrats became the pro-life party." Democrats shouldn't turn against their basic commitment to freedom of choice. But they don't have to. A prevention-first approach to the issue, combined with a real willingness to work with evangelicals on the other issues that matter to many of them - poverty, social justice, care for the environment - could very well be enough to break half of them away from the grip of the Republican party.

A sober look at the facts suggests that the trends in political evangelicalism should be a source of nightmares for Republicans, not for Democrats.

UPDATE: I posted this at Daily Kos. Some interesting comments. It's fair to say there's a great deal of skepticism over arguments like the one I'm making.

UPDATE #2: Now also cross-posted at Diatribune.

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