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The Evangelical Swing Vote

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The Religious Right is once again bamboozling the press and the public with a brilliant sleight-of-hand trick.

They're distracting us with the idea that they are becoming a kinder, gentler force, hoping that while we're pondering that happy change, we'll miss the true shift.

What's really happening is that the Religious Right does not control the hefty percentage of voters that it claimed as its own. These evangelicals voted with the Religious Right for a season, but they never were a solid GOP voting bloc. This election, they're the swing vote.

The non-Religious Right, swing-vote evangelicals are three to five times as numerous as evangelicals who toe the Religious Right political line.

Who says?

The evangelicals themselves. Only 20 percent of evangelicals say they are among the Religious Right, according the country's pre-eminent evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. Other surveys show that the great majority of evangelicals don't even know who their putative leaders, those the press goes to for opinions, are. Given a list of their names, they shrug and say, "Never heard of the guy."

These aren't new statistics. They are ignored statistics.

Seventy to 80 percent of people whom pollsters classify as evangelicals don't believe like, don't behave like, and this election, they aren't going to vote like the Religious Right. These evangelicals are pretty much middle America. They like their leaders to believe in God, to pray for guidance, to be good people. They worry about abortion but don't want to make it a crime. They aren't ready for gay marriage, but they aren't calling anybody an abomination in the sight of God. Discrimination of any kind doesn't sit well with them.

They're culturally conservative but not so much reactionary as merely cautious. They act as a storm anchor for a country being tossed every which way by change. Sometimes they go for the Republicans. Sometimes for the Democrats.

Religious Right leaders, on the other hand, still want their kind of God to be the only god allowed on the public stage, everywhere, all the time. They oppose legal abortion and gay rights as fiercely as ever. They still want sex education to be abstinence-only. They still oppose child protective services, teaching evolution, hate crimes legislation, condom distribution to combat AIDS... the list goes on. It hasn't changed.

Religious Right leaders have merely shifted public attention by adding more palatable issues. The environment. The poor.

It's a good trick.

Journalists, many of whom think born-agains and snake-handlers are pretty much on par, have never quite realized that two groups of very different evangelicals exist. Reporters have so often gone after the flamboyant character and the outrageous quote that there hasn't been room in the stories for the rest of the evangelicals, the bulk of them.

Pundits who worry that John McCain will lose the Religious Right vote don't get the picture. McCain has no rivals for the Religious Right vote. A good portion of those voters are convinced that Obama is a Muslim stealth candidate, and Clinton is the anti-Christ in a pant suit. Given such sentiments, McCain doesn't need to woo them. He merely has to keep that 5 to 8 percent of the population awake and alarmed enough that they won't stay home.

But it's only 5 to 8 percent. The other 17 to 20 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelicals are busy prising open the donkey's lips to get a look at his teeth. The Democrats have this vote if they remember to be moderately pious, as they are being, and mainly concerned with bread and butter issues: health care, jobs, energy.

As for the war, nobody quite knows what to do about that. Nobody wants to think about it. It can be safely ignored for now.

Religious Right leaders have stopped talking about their core issues -- publicly, at least -- only because they are afraid of being exposed for what they are. Not hate-mongers. That doesn't bother them. Not un-Christian. That doesn't bother them either.

What they fear is being exposed as the small minority of evangelicals that they actually are.

That is the important Religious Right story this year. So far, the press is missing it.

Christine Wicker is the author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church and a former religion reporter for The Dallas Morning News. Saved in a Southern Baptist church at the age of nine, she comes from a family going into its sixth generation of evangelicals. Her mother's grandfather was an itinerant Baptist preacher. Her dad's father was a Kentucky coal miner and foot-washing Baptist. Her blog is www.christinewicker.com.