Evangelical Movement – Religion and Politics – 2008 Presidential Election – Christians and Christianity – Voting and Voters

Today, the movement shows signs of disintegration under its leaders. It’s not just that none of the Republican frontrunners of 2008 are up to par with President Bush in the eyes of evangelical worshipers, though it would be hard to find a cast of characters more ill-suited to these shoes: a lapsed – Catholic mayor of a large city; a Mormon from Massachusetts; a church-hopping Hollywood actor; and a political renegade known to cross swords with Reverend Pat Robertson and Reverend Jerry Falwell. Nor is the problem simply that the Democratic presidential favorites — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards — sound like a bunch of tent-revival thumpers compared to the republicans.

The 2008 election is only the latest test of a system of much deeper flaws. The phenomenon of theologically conservative Christians plunging into right-wing political activism is, historically speaking, something of an anomaly. Most evangelicals ignored abortion as a Catholic issue until Roe v. Wade of 1973. But in the wake of the ban on prayer in public schools, the sexual revolution and the exodus to the suburbs that filled the new mega-churches, the protection of the unborn child is become the rallying cry of a new movement to maintain the traditional family. Now another confluence of factors threatens to tear the movement apart. The extraordinary gospel love affair with Bush ended, for many, in grief over the war in Iraq and what they see as his meager national achievements. This disappointment, in turn, has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world – over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, between approaches to ministry and theology, and between generations.

The founding generation of leaders like Falwell and Dobson, who first guided evangelicals into Republican politics 30 years ago, are leaving the scene. Falwell died in the spring. Paul Weyrich, 65, the tireless organizer who helped build the moral majority of Falwell and much of the rest of the movement, is confined to a wheelchair after losing his legs due to complications from a fall. Dobson, who is 71 and still vigorous, is already planning an estate at Focus on the Family; he is expected to turn to the less political family advice which is his bread and butter.

The engineers of the momentous 1980s power grab that expelled political and theological moderates from the Southern Baptist Convention are also retiring or dying. And in September, when I called a spokesperson for ailing Presbyterian televangelist D. James Kennedy, another stalwart of the Christian conservative movement, I learned that Kennedy had “gone home to the Lord” at 2 a.m. this morning. -the.

Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including widely imitated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways of characterizing the split: a push to improve this world as well as to save eternal souls; a focus on spiritual growth following conversion rather than on the yes or no moment of salvation; renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings on social justice as well as personal or sexual morality. However, whatever the design, the result is a new interest in public policies that address issues of peace, health and poverty – issues, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.

The right-wing backlash against Bush and the war has encouraged some previously wary evangelical leaders to criticize the leadership of the conservative Christian political movement. “The speed of the weapons, the speed of the invasion, I think it caused a sort of desertion of what is called the Christian right,” Hybels, whose Willow Creek association now includes 12,000 churches, told me. , during the summer. “People who might be called progressive evangelicals or centrist evangelicals are the ones who are walking away from true revival.”

Generational and theological shifts in the evangelical world make the upcoming election a test of credibility for the conservative Christian establishment. Current Republican frontrunner in the national polls, Rudolph W. Giuliani, could hardly be less like their kind of guy: twice divorced, three times married, estranged from his children and the church, and a supporter of legalized abortion and gay rights. Alarmed by the continued strength of his candidacy, Dobson and a group of about 50 evangelical Christian leaders agreed last month to support a third if Giuliani becomes the Republican nominee. But polls show Giuliani is the most popular candidate among white evangelical voters. He has the support, so far, of a plurality if not a majority of conservative Christians. If Giuliani wins the nomination despite the threat of an evangelical revolt, it will still be a long time before Republican strategists pay attention to the demands of conservative Christian leaders again. And if Democrats capitalize on the current demoralization to capture a larger share of evangelical votes, the damage to credibility could be just as severe.

Barry F. Howard