Editor’s note: President Bush has never made a secret of his opposition to gay marriage, but his high-profile embrace of the issue in early June was something unusual. In a weekly radio address and in a White House speech to religious leaders, Bush urged Senate passage of a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. The president’s poll numbers are at an all-time low, and his party’s fortunes seem shaky heading into the mid-term elections. But White House spokesman Tony Snow denied that Bush was acting out of “political expedience” and insisted he took up the issue because it was “politically ripe.” In fact, the Senate measure never had any chance of reaching the necessary 67 votes. But passing the ban wasn’t the point so much as stirring up the anger of religious conservatives.
Republicans have proven adept at exploiting the evangelical vote, but Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers argues that her own party writes off evangelical voters at their peril. Despite conventional wisdom claiming the reverse, Powers says, Democrats and evangelicals share common ground on many issues. Evangelicals are a fast-growing segment of the electorate, and until Democrats take them seriously, she argues, they had better get used to being the minority party.
Powers served in the Clinton Administration as Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Public Affairs. Since 2004, she has been a political analyst at Fox News, where she regularly does on-air battle with Republican opponents on issues of the day.
It hardly seems possible, but jockeying for the 2008 elections has already begun. Democrats are sizing up potential candidates, while operatives slice and dice the electorate to determine how they can cobble together a victory for the Democratic Party. And no group in the electorate seems to confound Democrats more than that called “white evangelical voters.”
Making up nearly 25 percent of the electorate, this isn’t a group that can be ignored, especially in an era of a polarized electorate that continues to produce nail biter presidential elections. Winning even a fraction more of evangelical voters could swing Democrats into the winning column.
But aren’t they all part of the Religious Right? Not so fast. It’s true that in 2004, 78 percent of evangelicals cast their vote for George W. Bush. But evangelicals didn’t always line up behind the GOP. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1987 white evangelicals were almost evenly divided between the two parties. But by 2004, Republicans dominated, with 56 percent versus 27 percent for Democrats. As Bill Moyers has stated: “They hijacked Jesus.”
Today, many evangelical leaders believe that a growing number of evangelical voters are prepared to return to the Democratic fold, but only if Democrats stop misunderstanding, neglecting, and even intentionally ignoring what once was and should be a natural constituency.
Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, travels the country talking to students and evangelical leaders. He estimates that about half of evangelicals belong to the immovable Religious Right, but the other half are open to, if not hungry for, progressive leadership.
THE RELIGIOUS LEFT—In a May 23 Op-Ed about wooing evangelical voters, Washington Postcolumnist Ruth Marcus raised a question that is on the minds of many Democrats: “What does it profit a party to gain a demographic but lose its soul?” She neatly summarized the worry that the only way for progressives to win over evangelical voters would be to jettison core Democratic values. But let’s be clear: this would be no deal with the devil.
When many people hear the word “evangelical,” what leaps to mind is Jerry Falwell blaming gays and feminists for 9/11 or Jimmy Swaggart saying that he would kill any man who looked at him romantically. But these kinds of comments by evangelical ministers are likely to be as shocking to evangelicals as they are to you.
When Falwell says of Jimmy Carter: “His message of peace and reconciliation under almost all circumstances is simply incompatible with Christian teachings as I interpret them,” the evangelicals who opposed the war in Iraq might disagree. In fact, some 40 faculty members from the Fuller Theological Seminary—the largest evangelical seminary in the country—signed a September 2002 letter opposing Bush’s idea of waging a unilateral pre-emptive war in Iraq.
Jim Wallis met recently with the leader of an evangelical mega-church, who told him, “I’m a conservative on Jesus, the Bible and the Resurrection, but I’m becoming a social liberal.” When Wallis asked why, he heard what has become a familiar refrain: evangelicals are increasingly despairing over the neglect of the poor and the environment, and the U.S.’s inaction on fighting the genocide in Darfur.
Evangelical groups are defying the notion that they move together as one gargantuan conservative amoeba and are finding their voice on many progressive issues. U2 frontman Bono has talked extensively of the partnership he has forged with evangelical leaders in fighting the AIDS crisis. One of those leaders is Ted Haggard, a staunch Republican who founded the 12,000-member New Life Church and heads the National Association of Evangelicals. Haggard counseled British Prime Minister Blair on how to persuade President Bush to support Third World debt relief and has made the environment a central issue of concern for his church.
In February, Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, ran a cover story called “Why Torture Is Always Wrong.” Catholics and evangelicals recently joined to support an immigration bill that would help illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens. And earlier this year, evangelical leaders launched a campaign to educate Christians about climate change and urged Congress to work on curbing global warming. The group released a poll showing that 70 percent of evangelicals believe global warming will pose a serious threat to future generations.
Haggard told the Denver Post: “We blew it with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My generation’s opportunity to blow it is to say we shouldn’t deal with the environment because that’s a liberal issue. Well, civil liberties was a liberal issue, and we were on the wrong side of that.”
Wallis reports a marked increase in attendance of his speeches on Christian campuses, and the issue he gets asked about the most is not gay marriage or abortion. He says abortion will naturally remain an important issue to the moderate evangelical voter, but it is not a litmus test. These voters want leaders who will acknowledge their moral concerns about this issue and who are committed to decreasing the number of abortions, a position that puts them well within the mainstream of Democratic voters.
In fact, the Democratic Party already counts a group that is socially conservative on abortion and gay marriage as one of its most loyal constituencies: African-Americans. Sixty-one percent of African-Americans in Ohio supported an initiative banning same-sex marriages.
THREE CAMPS—John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, divides evangelicals into three camps: traditionalist (right wing), centrist, and modernist. Green’s polling reveals that the first two camps are roughly the same size within the evangelical fold, each accounting for approximately 40 to 50 percent. The politically liberal modernist evangelicals are a small minority. Forty-eight percent of centrists are registered Republicans, 30 percent are Democrats, and 22 percent are Independents. Cathleen Falsani, religion reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and an evangelical Christian, refers to these voters as “Jesus-centric centrists . . . who take their faith seriously but don’t let Jerry Falwell set their agenda.”
Falsani believes the underserved portion of the evangelical movement—moderate to liberal voters—could swing elections in the Democratic Party’s favor if Democrats were serious about talking to them. Falsani relies on polling information to support her contention, but also likes to point to her personal experience as a graduate of Wheaton College, the Christian Evangelical school that counts the Rev. Billy Graham as an alumnus. According to Falsani, of her five college roommates, who are all evangelical Christians, four call themselves liberals and one considers herself a moderate. In 2004, three voted for Kerry, one for Bush and one opted not to vote at all, due to what she considered the lackluster options. Hardly a conservative monolith.
When asked to rank national issues in their order of importance by Pew Research’s 2004 Survey of Religion and Politics, centrist evangelicals listed economic and welfare issues above cultural ones, such as abortion and gay marriage, by about 20 points. For traditionalists, those numbers were reversed. Interestingly, taxing the rich instead of the middle class won overwhelming support from all evangelicals, even traditionalists, who backed it by a wide margin. But reinforcing Tom Frank’s thesis in What’s the Matter with Kansas—that many Americans vote against their economic self-interest in favor of their “values”—traditionalists rated cultural issues as their top priority.
In a 2005 speech, former President Bill Clinton spoke of a minister of the largest Pentecostal church in Louisiana, who opposes gay marriage and abortion, but voted for Clinton twice. The pastor unenthusiastically voted for Bush after Clinton left office. He told Clinton, “I have got mixed feelings about this Iraq thing. I hate those tax cuts. I don’t like the deficits. I think kicking all these poor kids out of after school programs is outrageous.” So why vote for Bush? He told Clinton, “Because ever since you left, nobody in your party talks to us anymore.”
The Democratic leadership has made overtures to leading evangelical churches—much to the dismay of many on the Left. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), a minister’s son who chairs the House Democrats’ Faith Working Group, worshiped with Bishop T.D. Jakes, an African-American Pentecostal minister who has been called “the next Billy Graham.” And Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean attended the opening of Joel Osteen’s megachurch in Houston and recently went on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club TV show. But Republicans have the edge. In 2000, 79 percent of evangelicals who voted for Bush had been contacted at least once by a politically active religious group or individual, as compared with 36 percent of Gore voters.
GOD ON THE QUAD—For those hoping the “evangelical movement” will just go away, it may be time to get real. Evangelical churches are the fastest-growing group of churches in the United States. A look at some of the trends of today’s college students suggests that these churches, which attract a disproportionate number of young people with their contemporary and welcoming style, may well have a captive audience. According to a 2005 study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, which has been surveying college students for 38 years, today’s students rank spirituality and religion as high as getting a job or doing well economically. The study found that three-fourths of college students say they are “searching for meaning or purpose in life,” more than three-quarters believe in God, and three-quarters say they pray. Bull sessions on the meaning of life are nothing new, but the existence of a charismatic and organized religious movement dedicated to changing American culture is.
This is happening despite the decampment of many evangelicals to Christian schools. According to the Department of Education, total fall enrollment at member campuses of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) grew more than 70 percent from 1990 to 2004. In the same time frame, all public four-year campuses grew only 12.8 percent; all independent four-year campuses grew 28 percent and all independent religious four-year campuses grew 27.5 percent.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, says students graduating from religious colleges are determined to influence American culture from the inside. Rather than retreating to red-state safety, they want to be around people who don’t share their beliefs. Riley describes this “Missionary Generation” as a savvy group who are seeking the same kinds of careers as those who attend secular schools. A contributor to the Wall Street Journal and National Review, Riley says that the students at religious colleges are “red through and through.” Since she surveyed only 20 schools, it’s hard to know if this assertion is fact or wishful thinking.
Consider the response President Bush received at Calvin College, the 4,300-student Christian liberal-arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he gave the commencement address last year. In straw polls during the 2004 election, more than two-thirds of Calvin students supported President Bush. Yet, upon learning that the president was to speak at the school, more than 800 students, alumni, faculty and friends signed a letter that ran in the Grand Rapids Press calling on Bush to “repudiate the false claims of supporters who say that those who oppose your policies are the enemies of religion.” In another letter, more than 100 Calvin professors faulted Bush for the Iraq War, for burdening the poor, and for fostering intolerance.
Bush fatigue has also shown up in recent polls surveying the views of white evangelical voters. A Pew Research Center poll in May found that since Bush began his second term in office, his approval rating has declined as much among white evangelicals as among the public as a whole. However, the survey also found that despite their lackluster support for the president they helped elect, there is little indication that evangelicals will simply abandon the Republican Party in the 2006 elections. It’s possible they will stay home, but it’s unlikely they will vote Democratic.
So, can the Democrats get comfortable with evangelical voters?
It wasn’t so long ago that liberals enthusiastically embraced a kind of religious movement, though few remember it that way. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke unapologetically of the moral imperative of ending segregation, an imperative that, he made clear, came from God. The civil rights movement was inspired by and grounded in King’s deep religiosity. A listen to some of his most famous sermons reveals a theme that is heard nearly every Sunday in many evangelical churches across this country: that Jesus is God, and the Bible is divine. America is special. The nation’s laws should be moral and rooted in the Bible.
This isn’t about giving up separation of church and state, or becoming more centrist, or selling the soul of the Democratic Party. It’s really about tolerance and understanding for people of faith who take that faith so seriously that they can’t compartmentalize it when choosing their leaders. It’s about letting go of stereotypes and misinformed assumptions about people you’ve never met and places you’ve probably never been. It can be a tall order for some, but if there is any group who can welcome other people who are passionate about social justice, preserving the environment, opposing torture, and ending AIDS and the genocide in Darfur, it has to be the Democrats.