Evangelicals changing clout

Published 9:10 am Friday, May 1, 2015

When the Moral Majority first appeared in American politics a union formed between the Republican party and evangelical Christians, one that remains today a factor in presidential elections. In the 2012 election Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, received 79 percent of the evangelical Christian vote. It was not enough for a Romney victory and was offset by Catholic, Jewish and Hispanic religious voters opting to vote Democratic.

As the 2016 presidential campaign gets underway The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition invited nine Republicans, candidates and potential candidates, to speak to the coalition in anticipation of the early 2016 Iowa primary. There were few differences and no surprises in the presentations, which led Kedron Bardwell, political scientist at Iowa’s Simpson College to write “They are all running in the same lane.”

But that “lane” has evolved and continues to do so as evangelicals, and their political identities change over time. Where once the evangelical movement found itself in conflict with the secular government of the country in what has been described as “culture wars,” today the country seems more pluralizing than secularizing according to Boston University professor Peter Berger. Pluralization, Berger writes, is resulting in an American society of more divergence in beliefs and values than in previous generations.

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Cal Thomas, conservative columnist, comments this week “this transition from an institutional church to individual responsibility can be something good for America if evangelicals return to their “first love” and begin sharing their faith in deed first and then word.”

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Conference argues ““If you’re fencing the table around your political agenda but you’re not fencing the table around the Gospel, then the political agenda is your gospel,” while advancing a social responsibility agenda for evangelicals. Moore argues the evangelical mission includes engaging the “culture wars” by addressing oppression in society.

Professor Marcia Pally of New York University adds that contemporary evangelism embraces belief in the centrality of individual “virtuous actions” supported by collaboration, an evangelical view not given full credit in the political environment.

There is a good deal of additional evidence that evangelicals are making a difference by connecting their mission as Christians to social issues of current importance. There is a strong evangelical movement to protect the environment as “God’s stewards,” centralized in part through a concept called Creation Care. Additionally, the National Association of Evangelicals is fighting for congress to place restrictions on carbon emissions, in order to preserve the gift of God’s creation.

Evangelicals for Immigration reform have formed a coalition in support of amnesty for many illegal Immigrants. The Rev. Gabriel Salguero writes “These are our brothers and sisters, our children, our neighbors” and finds support for this position from past president Bryant Wright of the Southern Baptist Convention.

On the pressing issue of poverty the National Association of Evangelicals calls for protection within the federal budget of funding for domestic and International assistance programs that help the needy. The association also advocates increases in taxes upon the wealthy and cuts in defense expenditures before reductions in assistance programs.

Unspoken in these transitions from political to social priorities by evangelicals is the recognition that the political, when it sublimates the mission of service, does not fulfill the evangelical mission and calls into question the outcome of such choices. Phil Jackson, executive director of Grace to You writes “Political clout has nothing whatsoever to do with spiritual power.”

Jackson is right, of course, and as evangelism sees younger evangelicals splitting away from positions like opposition to gay marriage and racial equality, there is a developing recognition that the evolution of evangelical political change many continue to unfold in new and challenging ways.


Jim Crawford is a retired educator and political enthusiast living here in the Tri-State.