Evangelicals and Politics

I occasionally will write a short essay or op-ed piece about religion and contemporary politics. Sometimes people will ask me what an early American historian has to say about faith and the 2008 presidential election. I usually answer by saying that The Way of Improvement Leads Home can be read as a book about the history of religion and politics. As I do interviews and talks for the book, I find that many of the people I meet try to suggest that Fithian’s Christian patriotism was a forerunner to the kind of evangelical politics we see promoted today by the Christian Right. While I did not write the book with this in mind, I have few quibbles with this analogy. (I did a radio interview on a Christian station in east Texas the other morning and the host was a big fan of Fithian’s mentor, John Witherspoon. For him, Witherspoon’s Christian republicanism and providentialism was a model for Christian political action today).

Recently a media relations firm contacted me with a few questions about evangelicalism and the current presidential campaign. I am not sure how they will use the information, but I thought I would post the questions and my answers here. (With only slight changes to make my answers more blog accessible). Faith and politics have once again returned to the public eye in anticipation of this Saturday’s Civil Forum on Leadership and Compassion at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. It will be televised by MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN. (This event is not unlike the recent Compassion Forum held last April at Messiah College, although McCain has actually decided to show up this time. It also looks like Warren’s event has attracted more television coverage).

Q: There is a stereotype out there that all evangelicals are Republicans. Is that true?

JF: Yes, there is a stereotype that all evangelicals are Republicans. This is not true. We need to be careful about simply assuming this. Remember, evangelicalism is at its very core a religious movement and not a political one. You can find Republican evangelicals, Democratic evangelicals, Green evangelicals, Libertarian evangelicals, Reform evangelicals, independent evangelicals, etc…. I was struck by a recent unscientific web poll taken by Christianity Today (I have not been able to dig this up on-line), the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, which asked readers who they would be voting for in the 2008 presidential election. 47% supported McCain and 42% supported Obama. I have been following this poll over the course of the last several months and Obama seems to be rising. Evangelical groups such as Sojourners and Faith in Public Life have been trying to push the notion that God is not a Republican or a Democratic. (They are right–although most of these groups tend to lean toward the Democrats).

Having said that, there is, as in most stereotypes, some truth here. For the past two decades evangelicals HAVE tended to lean heavily Republican. (Think about the way that evangelicals carried George Bush in 2000 and 2004). Today most evangelicals are still Republican, but John McCain is not the kind of socially conservative Republican they like. (See James Dobson’s hesitancy to support McCain). This may explain why some have jumped on the Obama bandwagon

I think the number of Democratic evangelicals is small. Moreover, evangelicals have been much more successful in shaping the platform and ideals of the Republican Party than they have been in shaping the platform and ideals of the Democratic Party.

Q: What role do evangelicals play in politics? What role will they play in this years election?

JF: Evangelicals emerged on the political scene with force in the mid-1970s. (Although they were quite active in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War as well). The Moral Majority, under the leadership of the late Jerry Falwell, pulled the movement out of its political exile (which probably extends back to the embarrassment of the Scopes Trial in 1925) and led them in the fight for tax-exempt Christian schools and legalized abortion. Pat Robertson continued this movement with his “Christian Coalition,” which promoted evangelical political candidates at the local and national level. Eventually the Christian Right agenda included homosexual marriage and stem-cell research.

Today more and more evangelicals are focused as well on “compassion” issues such as poverty, global warming, HIV/AIDS, etc…. Yet, despite this recent move toward compassion, I still think that most evangelicals in America will vote based upon a candidate’s position on abortion, gay rights, and stem-cell research. The 2008 election is a tough one for evangelicals. Conservative evangelicals are not fond of John McCain. He is not evangelical enough. His view on abortion is unclear. (Although the New Republic has recently run an article strongly affirming his pro-life credentials). He is against Roe v. Wade, but favors turning the abortion question over to the states to decide. (This is somewhat unsatisfying for many evangelicals because states could still decide to make abortion legal). Many evangelicals will support McCain because he is more conservative on the social issues than Obama. Yet some evangelicals will vote for Obama because of his commitment to these compassion issues and his willingness to address religious ideas in his campaign. In general, the majority of evangelicals will begrudgingly support McCain, but there will be a considerable number who will vote for Obama. There seems to be a generational explanation for this. Older evangelicals will support McCain, but Obama has great appeal among younger evangelicals–especially many of the college students who I teach.

I will make a prediction here: the number of evangelicals voting Democrat in 2008 will be the highest it has been since the 1976 election when many evangelicals backed Jimmy Carter. The evangelical vote will be important in 2008, but it will not be as unified or as influential as it was in 2000 or 2004.

Q: How important is the evangelical vote for candidates?

JF: Since evangelicals make up a large voting block, both candidates want to woo them. Obama is making a conscious effort, in his “move toward the middle,” to win the support of evangelicals. He knows how to speak their language and often talks about his conversion experience. McCain is awkward when it comes to talking about faith. He does not seem comfortable with the subject. Yet the fact that both candidates have agreed to a forum at Rick Warren’s Church this week suggests that they are taking this voting block very seriously. As I mentioned before, Obama will not defeat McCain among evangelicals, but he is in a very good position to make a significant dent in the Republican-evangelical coalition that carried Bush in 2004 and this may be just enough to win him the election.

One thought on “Evangelicals and Politics

  1. I think you are right about the generational dynamic at work among evangelicals who support Obama. I’ve heard many of the same things from evangelicals I’ve talked with in Texas.

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