Rants, reason and the religious right in US politics

Does being a Christian in America automatically mean being a Republican?

It was only a matter of time. As superstorm Sandy began to pound the American northeast a preacher of the Christian Right popped up to point the finger at gay people for bringing God’s wrath upon the nation. On his blog, author and broadcaster John McTernan ranted against the decadence of modern American life, and the failure of the U.S. to offer enough support to Israel– accusing Obama of being in league with the Muslim brotherhood. Apparently these are the sins of the nation that are ushering in the latest serving of divine fury.

Such bizarre pronouncements play into a popular perception of American Christianity being nothing more than a self-serving handmaiden to ultra conservative politics.

But at the same time that McTernan was hunkering down in his basement to tap out his message of theological madness, Rev Richard Cizik, evangelical leader, long time Washington lobbyist and President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good spoke to me about the approaching storm. He saw Sandy as a clear result of climate change and a harsh warning to take the science of renewable energy more seriously. “Romney is the candidate of big oil, coal and gas and makes jokes … about global warming. Over six million people in the dark tonight might not think it’s a joke,” said Cizik.

The contrast neatly captures a changing dynamic on the American religious landscape that is set to influence the political realm in the years ahead. The Christian Right—though their voices in the current campaign remain loud—no longer reign supreme. The marrying of conservative Christianity to conservative party politics—a relatively recent phenomenon in American religious life—might be set to change.

New York University’s Marcia Pally writes about this in her recent book, The New Evangelicals – Expanding the Vision of the Common Good. Pally argues that since at least 2005 there has been a significant shift in the religious profile of America. A large proportion of the country now fits the description of what she calls the “New Evangelicals”. Pally puts the number at around 25% of the adult population though others would put it closer to 16%- either way the numbers are significant. These are the devout who have held on to traditional beliefs but whose priorities have broken from the religious right and broadened in the direction of poverty relief, antimilitarism, immigration reform and environmental protection. Human rights, democracy and economic justice are deep concerns for this group who recognise that central to their faith is a call to love.

At the same time as they became disillusioned with the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Bush administration’s sanctioning of torture they also came to see that their role is to stand outside of government in order to critique it, rather than commandeer government for their own purposes. Pally notes that in 2004 78% of White Evangelicals voted for George Bush. By 2009, 35% of evangelicals identified as Democrat, 34% as Republican and the remaining third as independents.[1] In the 2010 mid-terms there was a return to a majority voting Republican.

Increasingly the New Evangelicals have shifted to an issue-by-issue approach to politics and those issues have tended to focus on economic justice. In debates around budget priorities in 2010-2011 the National Association of Evangelicals joined a coalition of groups that declared, “As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare”. They declared they would resist budget cuts that came at the expense of human dignity and promised a “Circle of Protection around programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.”[2]

This is hardly standard GOP fare, but even more alarming for the Evangelical/Republican Party alliance was the 2008 Evangelical Manifesto that was signed by over 70 Evangelical leaders, representing enormous numbers of churchgoers and voters. These leaders declared, “We see it as our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system or nationality.” The document critiqued the “cheerleaders for those in power and the naïve sycophants of the powerful and the rich.” It called for “the expansion of our concerns beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage, and a fuller recognition of the comprehensive causes and concerns of the Gospel.”[3]

Also notable in the evangelical involvement in the culture wars has been the broadening of the approach to contentious issues among the New Evangelicals. Political activist and founder of Sojourners magazine, Jim Wallis, believes that especially for young Christians “Pro-life” has a much fuller meaning than it once did. “Pro-life also means caring for the life and dignity of the poor and vulnerable; for the earth, which gives life; and the economy, which sustains life.”

While most people today take it for granted that evangelical protestant equates to republican voter, this is historically unusual. In fact the opposite was traditionally the case. The great progressive movements of American history—the American Revolution, the emancipation of the slaves, the early suffragette movement, the fight for civil rights were each hugely impacted by, and spurred on by people of religious faith. Marcia Pally says the New Evangelicals are returning to political visions and social practices with a long tradition in America from the 17th Century onwards.

Richard Cizik believes New Evangelicals could have a significant bearing on the outcome of what is shaping up to be a close presidential race. “These are conservative voters generally who are open, if not already persuaded, [by the idea] that a vote for the President reflects their concern for economic justice, opposition to militarism, and support for environmental protection and action on climate change, among other concerns such as jobs,” says Cizik.

Obama’s stance on abortion and gay marriage will remain a thorny issue for evangelical groups. And “Obamacare’s” refusal to allow exemption to religious organisations in providing abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization could prove to be politically costly. But it may be that the shifting polls of recent years reflect a expanding horizon for the American Church; where issues of social justice are set to become more than crumbs under the table of a conservative political agenda; where a new generation of committed believers envisage Jesus’ message applying to every area of society, politics and culture; and where much more than a myopic focus on moral crusading becomes the hallmark of a church that exists for more than its own.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

This article orginally appeared at The Drum

[1] Marcia Pally, The New Evangelicals – Expanding the Vision of the Common Good Eerdmans, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2011, p27.

[2] Marcia Pally, The New Evangelicals – Expanding the Vision of the Common Good p27.

[3] Marcia Pally, The New Evangelicals – Expanding the Vision of the Common Good, p 119.