Unquestionably, there is a dark, fundamentalist side to American evangelicalism, most recently showcased in a new book, "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age," by Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens.
Extremist theoreticians and theologians like Dominionist David Barton and C. Peter Wagner of the New Apostolic Reformation would like to take over the nation and world in Jesus' name. They plot to use their political influence to leverage the United States in a theocratic direction -- or at least to further smudge the separation of church and state.
If they could. The thing is, they can't and they won't. So left-wing Jews and progressives generally -- among whom I number myself -- should stop acting like Chicken Little on the subject of evangelicals.
Sure, as Giberson and Stephens point out, evangelicals have their fair share of scoundrels and charlatans. There is an undeniably ugly, sinister and narrow-minded strain of the movement that equates religious tolerance with theological equivalence, or affirmation. For some pastors, especially among the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, "ecumenism" and "interfaith" are dirty words. And at the grass roots, there is some hatred of gay people.
But progressives generally, and Jewish progressives in particular, should stop looking at evangelicals through a parochial, Park Slope prism, and stop frightening themselves. I have lived among them for nearly two decades and I know what I am talking about.
Despite their high level of support for John McCain in 2008 (74 percent), enough white evangelicals stayed home or voted for Obama in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia to give the Democrats the White House. Even in Indiana, an estimated 161,000 white evangelicals voted for Obama.
If Obama is reelected, extremist evangelical influence in the White House will likely continue to be what it has been for the past three years: nil.
True, in next year's election, white evangelicals are likely to come out in even greater numbers to vote Republican, according to Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, especially in Sun Belt swing states like Florida, North Carolina and Virginia that Obama carried last time. All three are keystones of the Obama campaign's 2012 strategy, according to the New York Times.
"Given the present polling data on the president's support -- that he has difficulty breaking 40 percent of whites overall -- his chances of doing any better among white evangelicals seem small," Brown said.
John Green, of the Pew Center and the University of Akron, agrees.
"If the Republicans are to recapture the White House in 2012, their nominee will need strong support from white evangelicals, especially in the battleground states," he said, "So mobilizing white evangelicals is likely to be an important element of the Republican campaign."
The question implicit in these predictions is: Who are evangelicals? I maintain that, conventional media wisdom notwithstanding, the political center of gravity of American evangelicalism is in the Sun Belt suburbs and at the grass roots they are center-right and middle class, and do not dream of taking over America. While they oppose abortion and gay marriage, only a minority believe the world is 6,000 years old, and growing numbers believe that action needs to be taken to combat global climate change. And there are more of this kind of white evangelical here in Central Florida's pivotal I-4 Corridor than are likely to vote in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
And if the Republicans do capture the White House? Ironically, Jews and progressives are not alone in their concern about evangelical influence in that event. Evangelical voters (and leaders) face their own dilemma. Polls in 2008, the last time former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ran, found that white evangelicals voiced strong skepticism about whether they could support a Mormon for President. While willing to make common cause with Mormons on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, many Southern evangelicals do not consider them Christians. Thus, while evangelicals don't mind being political bedfellows with Mormons at night, they don't like walking around with them the next morning in sunlight -- or voting for one of them for president.
This issue flared again in October, at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., when the Rev. Robert Jeffress, of the First Baptist Church of Dallas -- who introduced Perry at the gathering -- described Mormonism in those same terms, igniting a media furor. But in a written statement, Perry came to Romney's defense.
"The governor does not believe Mormonism is a cult," a campaign spokesman said. "He is not in the business of judging people. That's God's job." And a Washington Post-ABC poll conducted a week earlier found that the percentage of evangelicals opposed to Romney has dropped to 20 percent.
Nevertheless, if Romney wins the GOP nomination without the support of evangelicals, they are still likely to hold their noses and back him against Obama in the fall. Yet they would constitute a "captive constituency," with nowhere else to go (much like progressive Democrats).
Fundamentalist evangelicals would have much less influence in the White House than they did when George Bush was the occupant. This outcome -- Romney clearly has no interest in making the U.S. a "Mormon nation" -- might leave Jewish voters considerably less uneasy, which may account for the presence of so many major Jewish Republican donors in his corner.
And so, that leaves Rick Perry, and what some believe are his sinister ties to leaders of various arcane, marginal and sensational theological doctrines like "Dominionism," "Christian Reconstructionism" and the "New Apostolic Reformation" (NAR).
While these are undoubtedly catnip to conspiracy theorists and their opportunistic media enablers, I'd be surprised if more than 5 percent of suburban evangelicals would recognize the bizarre tenets of the NAR, as outlined by one of its founders on public radio's "Fresh Air."
Nonetheless, the former Texas governor does have ties -- some tenuous, some not -- to advocates for those theories, some of whom helped mobilize a faith rally on his behalf in Houston as he launched his campaign. An early TV campaign ad implied that America is in what some evangelicals call "End Times," giving credence to insiders' views that there is a greater likelihood of Perry manipulating them than vice versa.
Mark I. Pinsky, longtime religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel and Los Angeles Times, is author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed (Westminster John Knox. 2006)