Are Evangelicals Politically Homeless?


David R. Swartz is assistant professor of history at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky.

Credit: Flickr/cseeman.

When I tell people about my recently released book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, I sometimes get a snort in response: “The evangelical left? All three of them!?” This quip has some basis in reality. Polls from the 2012 election show that over 70 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney. The politics of Jesus -- for evangelicals, at least -- appears to be thoroughly Republican.

It hasn’t always been so. In the early 1970s, well before the rise of the Moral Majority, a substantial movement of progressives emerged. They launched Evangelicals for McGovern in 1972, mobilized for Jimmy Carter in 1976, and started social justice groups across the nation. In 1973 the Washington Post wrote that the burst of action might “launch a religious movement that could shake both political and religious life in America.” It wasn’t until the Moral Majority erupted in the late 1970s that it became clear that progressives would not become the face of evangelical politics.

Forty years later, in an era when the label evangelical has become synonymous with conservative politics, the seemingly inevitable marginalization of progressive evangelicalism needs to be remembered in context. Back in the mid-twentieth century, the Democratic Party was arguably more pro-life and pro-family than the Republican Party, whose elites were preoccupied with economic issues. That changed during the 1968 and 1972 conventions, when activists moved the party toward a pro-choice position and began to flout sexual liberties. As Democrats enforced their new pro-choice orthodoxy, many pro-life politicians such as John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Mario Cuomo, Bob Kerrey, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Joe Biden, Paul Simon, and Al Gore moved to a personally against, but pro-choice posture. Those not willing to flip funneled into the Republican Party, which reached out to moderate evangelicals and Catholics with great success. The subsequent rise of the highly visible Moral Majority of the 1980s, Christian Coalition of the 1990s, and evangelical networks that elected George W. Bush in the 2000s have created a caricature of evangelicalism as a monolithic political bloc energized by only a few conservative political issues.

But the evangelical left’s fate as a moral minority says more about electoral shifts in the 1970s than about an inherent political conservatism. All along there have been millions of politically homeless evangelicals who vote Republican out of pro-life conviction, despite holding more progressive positions on poverty, capital punishment, and the environment. Many are not sympathetic with a stark, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy that denies the need for government help for the poor. And in more recent years there has been a persistent, and growing, undercurrent of social justice activity beneath the electoral surface. On the conservative end, Jim Daly, Focus on the Family’s choice to succeed culture warrior James Dobson, argues that evangelicals should give more attention to issues such as immigration reform, poverty, adoption, and foster care. On the progressive end, there is evidence of new vitality within the Sojourners organization (half of the magazine’s readership is under the age of thirty). And the blossoming of the Christian Community Development Association and environmental organizations is giving a long-marginalized evangelical left more traction.

Moreover, the impressively high number of Republican evangelicals counts only white evangelicals. Black evangelicals vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Latino evangelicals are about evenly split. And evangelical immigrants from around the world combine conservative theological and moral stances with progressive economic and foreign policy views in ways that defy the Western imagination. Using the category of “white evangelicals” as shorthand for evangelicalism is misleading for a missions-minded group that sees itself as part of a multiethnic, global communion.

Given the progressive positions of non-white evangelicals and the new emphasis on social justice by nearly all evangelicals, are we seeing a substantial leftward shift? Perhaps -- but not necessarily electorally, given Democrats’ lack of outreach and resistance to evangelical moral concerns. Between the 2008 and 2012 elections, Democrats routed large amounts of funding and personnel away from faith and values initiatives and intensified its pro-choice orthodoxy. Many evangelicals, even those of the progressive stripe, fear that Democrats will insist on abortions with no limits and require churches to officiate same-sex marriages.

Polls have confirmed that evangelicals may now be headed for less partisan identification. A 15 percent drop in Republican identification in the 2000s resulted in a mere 5 percent rise in Democratic affiliation, but a 10 percent jump for independents. Political scientist John Green calls these new evangelical non-rightists “freestyle evangelicals.” Among them are Bill Hybels, pastor of the megachurch Willow Creek outside of Chicago, who has told the New York Times that he considered politics a path to “heartache and disappointment.” He envisioned a less partisan, but no less socially engaged path. “We have just pounded the drum again and again that, for churches to reach their full redemptive potential, they have to do more than hold services -- they have to try to transform their communities,” Hybels said. “If there is racial injustice in your community, you have to speak to that. If there is educational injustice, you have to do something there. If the poor are being neglected by the government or being oppressed in some way, then you have to stand up for the poor.” This is the grass-roots path of a moderate evangelicalism navigating between a hostile Democratic Party and a hard-edged Republican Party.

What can be predicted with more confidence than precise political contours is the continued activism and diversity of the evangelical movement. A long Protestant narrative dating back to the sixteenth century has taught this historical lesson. Anabaptists, sometimes called the left wing of the Reformation, challenged the establishment in a frenzy of populist, democratic, and anti-hierarchical fervor. In the eighteenth century, British abolitionists challenged the slave trade. In the nineteenth century, some American evangelicals dissented from the Whig establishment to establish communitarian utopias. At the turn of the twentieth century, North Carolinian populists for a time challenged Jim Crow. Others worked on social issues such as temperance, abolition, industrialization, suffrage, and civil rights unionism. The historical and global portrait of evangelicalism is of a group more politically creative than the electoral structures that try to contain them.

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