Evangelicals After Falwell
The New York Times has a very good article on the changing nature of Evangelical political activism. The article observes that the story is complicated--most evangelicals are quite conservative, and many of the new leaders are as conservative as Falwell, with differences in tone rather than ideology. Still, as the article points out, there are elements of the evangelical community that could be receptive to a Democratic candidate:
A poll conducted this year by the Pew Research Center showed that white evangelical Protestants have similar concerns to other Americans, including the war in Iraq, education and the economy, but a far greater percentage continue to cite tackling the “moral breakdown” in society as a key priority. They remain solidly Republican.
“While I think a lot of their leaders have begun to talk about other things, like Darfur and the environment, this remains a pretty social conservative group in some respects,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “There doesn’t seem to me to be any sign of a sea change.”
Indeed, the survey showed that fewer evangelicals assigned top priority to protecting the environment than did the overall population, and that roughly the same number of evangelicals identified alleviating poverty as a top priority as did the general population. Meanwhile, evangelicals identified reducing illegal immigration as a priority at a much greater percentage than the population as a whole.
In a separate survey in 2004, John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, however, placed evangelicals into three camps — traditionalist, centrist and modernist — based on the how rigidly they adhered to their beliefs and their willingness to adapt them to a changing world. The traditionalists are evangelicals who are usually labeled as the Christian right, while the centrists might be represented by the newer breed of evangelical leaders, who remain socially and theologically quite conservative but have mostly sought to avoid politics. The two camps are roughly the same size, each representing 40 to 50 percent of the total.
Experts agree, though, that the centrist camp is growing. Estimates of the number of evangelicals nationwide vary, depending on how they are counted and how the term is defined, but Mr. Green put it at 26.3 percent of Americans.
The full electoral implications of the shift that is occurring in the movement will likely unfold over the next decade or more, several religious experts and activists said, as opposed to in this next presidential election cycle.
“I think we’re talking about a 20-year effect,” said Andy Crouch, an editor at Christianity Today.
The tremors of change are, nevertheless, detectable, especially among younger evangelicals. Many are intrigued by Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, who has demonstrated the ability to speak convincingly about his faith on the campaign trail, as a presidential candidate.
“The person I just hear about all the time is Obama because he is seen as spiritually serious, even if people know he’s really kind of a liberal Christian,” Mr. Crouch said.
Gabe Lyons, 32, is emblematic of the transformation among many younger evangelicals. He grew up in Lynchburg, Va., attending Mr. Falwell’s church. But he has shied away from politics. Instead, he heads the Fermi Project, a loose “collective” dedicated to teaching evangelicals to shape culture through other means, including media and the arts.
“I believe politics just isn’t as important to younger evangelicals as it has been for the older generations because we recognize from experience that politics does not shape the morality of a culture,” he said. “It simply reflects what the larger culture wants.”
There are other signs of attitude changes among younger evangelicals. Recent surveys conducted by the Barna Group show that younger “born again” Christians are more accepting of homosexuality than older ones and are less resistant to affording gays equal rights. But on abortion, they remain almost as conservative as their parents — more fodder for both political parties to weigh as they consider the future.
Read it all.