Illustration of two figures, the one in front grinning, both holding chalices


Vox Populi, Vox Dei?

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Mark I. Pinsky

In 1993, a Washington Post reporter infamously described evangelical Christians as “poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” The phrase was inaccurate when it appeared on the paper’s front page—and was widely and deeply reproved. If anything, it is less descriptive in an era when evangelicals have expanded and extended their influence to the highest reaches of power. Still, this cavalier attitude dies hard. “Under Karl Rove’s sorcerer’s spell,” James Wolcott wrote in the November 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, “Republicans learned how to exploit the intelligence gap, herding the dopey faithful to the polls, and depending on their docility between elections. . . . Progress in the country depends upon maneuvering around this solid bloc of recalcitrant dunces.”

Clearly, appraisals like Wolcott’s were born of frustration and based on 2000-2004 national election returns. While I have shared the frustration, and acknowledge Rove’s masterful powers of manipulation, I don’t agree with the analysis. Conservative Christians weren’t the only gullible Americans stampeded by war fever and cherry-picked intelligence in the 2002 midterm elections. Evangelicals in the Sun Belt and the heartland are, for the most part, middle-class suburbanites, and reasonably well educated—at least by American standards. True, they are intensely loyal to candidates who share their religious beliefs. But they are at least as sophisticated and pragmatic as other sectors of the electorate, as they amply demonstrated in the 2006 midterm election.

In the months leading up to the 2006 elections, evangelicals were bombarded by bad news about their political allies. Several Republican members of the House were accused of, indicted for, and resigned as a result of criminal charges growing out of their relations with Capitol Hill lobbyists. On September 29, Congressman Mark Foley of Florida resigned after sexually inappropriate email messages to male Congressional pages provoked a firestorm of criticism, and, later, charges of a cover-up on the part of the House Republican leadership. Within weeks, former White House special assistant David Kuo released a political memoir, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction. In it—and on CBS’s Sixty Minutes—the longtime evangelical activist alleged that religious constituencies were “used for political purposes.” Top White House officials, he said, including President Bush and Rove, spoke of conservative Christian leaders in terms at least as disparaging as those in the Washington Post and Vanity Fair. Then, on the weekend before the election, a male escort in Denver charged that the Rev. Ted Haggard, a mega-church pastor and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, had purchased drugs and paid for sex over a three-year period. After a brief investigation by his church elders, Haggard resigned from his pulpit and his NAE post, and he was quickly disowned by the White House. All of these developments unfolded while a drumbeat of news from Iraq suggested a situation spinning out of control. Even a decision by the New Jersey State Supreme Court opening the door to legalizing gay marriage failed to ignite the emotions of evangelicals.

The bill came due on November 7. Evangelical leaders urged grassroots voters to think nationally when voting locally, with mixed results. The Republicans lost both houses of Congress. “The Democrats ran lots of new faces who convinced voters that they do not represent a godless party,” former White House adviser David Gergen told Rolling Stone. “The evangelical vote cannot be taken for granted now; Republicans have to earn it back.”

Other experts were more cautious in their analyses. If conservative Protestants were shaken by the barrage of bad news, they were not stirred in large numbers. “It looks like the white evangelical base of the Republican Party pretty much held firm,” John Green, senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, told Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times. “The white evangelicals did show up, and they did vote Republican. . . . The biggest change appears to be in the states where the Democratic candidates made a real effort to attract these religious voters. It seems to have paid off.”

Over all, exit polls indicated that 27 percent of white evangelicals voted Democratic, based as much on corruption and incompetence as on the Iraq war, compared to 25 percent for Democrats in 2004. A poll conducted by James Zogby for Faith and Public Life found that 30 percent of white evangelicals said the war in Iraq was the moral issue that most influenced their vote in the election (they were not offered the category of congressional corruption and immorality). Yet, over all, regardless of any discontent, the core of the core of evangelicals turned out in undiminished numbers and held firm for the GOP.

Florida, a swing state, provides an interesting case study of both the complexity and the sophistication of the evangelical vote. An effort to put a ban on gay marriage on the ballot failed to gain enough signatures, in part because Governor Jeb Bush did not support it. In the voting booth, the emerging divide between moderate and more conservative evangelicals was manifest, as they rejected “friends” and supported candidates who appeared cool to their interests. During the campaign for the U.S. Senate, U.S. Representative Katherine Harris told Southern Baptists, “If you are not electing Christians, tried and true,” then “in essence you are going to legislate sin.” For this she was embraced by evangelical leaders, but was swamped by moderate Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.

In the voting booth, the emerging divide between moderate and more conservative evangelicals was manifest.

Most instructive was the Republican gubernatorial primary. State Attorney General Charlie Crist defied conventional wisdom, adopting a counterintuitive strategy by running toward the mainstream center, conceding the hard evangelical right to his opponent, Tom Gallagher, the state’s chief financial officer. As the attorney general, Crist did not support government intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo and, as a candidate, would not condemn stem-cell research or Roe v. Wade, although he claimed to be pro-life. While he signed the ill-fated petition to put the gay marriage ban on the ballot, Crist also supported civil unions. Yet, running toward the middle, he defeated Gallagher in the primary going away, and went on to win the general election by a wide margin, garnering 69 percent of the white Protestant vote, which was 40 percent of the electorate.

Regardless of the outcome of the 2008 election and those that follow, it appears that with the Bush administration, evangelical Christians reached a high point of national political influence. It is unlikely that another successful presidential candidate so personally identified with evangelicals will soon occupy the White House, or that his or her party will control all three branches of government.

At a deeper level, there may also be resentment among moderate and independent voters—including some moderate evangelicals—that, under Bush, evangelical conservatives overplayed their hand.

What is the way forward, to 2008 and beyond? “In the words of the old hymn, ‘deep and wide,’ ” said the Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church, a multi-campus congregation in Longwood, Florida, who was named to head the traditionally conservative Christian Coalition last year. Hunter, a mega-church minister, is author of Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Why the Tactics of the Religious Right Won’t Fly With Most Conservative Christians. In it, he advocates a broader agenda for Christian activists, beyond abortion and marriage, to include efforts to combat global warming, and a less pugnacious and combative approach to political activism. This also includes making common cause with other groups, some of them liberal, on an issue-by-issue basis, like raising the minimum wage, opposition to the death penalty, human trafficking, and Darfur. “The maturing part of the evangelical movement is growing more secure in both its intellectual moorings, and also in its willingness to make common cause with an array of ad hoc allies to advance its values,” said Hunter, who resigned as head of the organization when he failed to turn it around to his views.

Hunter is also chary of reflexive loyalty to the GOP. A July 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of white evangelicals felt the GOP had a “friendly” view of the GOP, a drop of 14 points from the previous July. That erosion will be reversed, I believe, if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton. In that event, the party’s outreach to white evangelicals will immediately self-destruct, replicating the results of Al Smith’s campaign in 1928, when the South abandoned the Catholic New Yorker. For the overwhelming majority of evangelicals, a vote for Hillary—despite her authentic Methodist credentials—would be a vote for Satan. 

Mark I. Pinsky, religion writer for The Orlando Sentinel, is author, most recently, of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed (Westminster John Knox Press).

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