*Author's Note: This is the second in a three part series comprising one evangelical Christian's take on the three major players in the upcoming presidential campaign: The Tea Party, Republican Party and Democrat Party. You can read the first installment at: The Irony of the Tea Party. Now for part two.
It seems like the marriage between Evangelical Christians and the Republican Party is crumbling.
In a recent New York Times article, Professor Marcia Pally (NYU, Fordham), describes what she calls the New Evangelicals who are leaving the right wing voting block and looking for a new home. This group is much more unpredictable than past generations of religious voters. Pally writes, "These new evangelicals focus on economic justice, environmental protection and immigration reform -- not exactly Republican strong points. The religious right remains a potent political force, but where once there was the appearance of an evangelical movement that sang out in one voice, there is now a robust polyphony."
While some important resonances remain, recent trends in Republican politics have driven away a significant segment of religious voters. Pally cites a recent Pew Research Study which finds that 19 percent of the U.S. population who self identify as "Christian" do not consider themselves to be a part of the Christian right, nor are they part of the Christian left. That's an enormous block of voters, and they have their own unique list of concerns. Pally notes that the 19 percent don't have "a candidate they love: someone who will help the poor, protect the planet and dramatically reduce the need for abortion, someone who will help both secular and faith-based organizations to do this work. That's a political void, and those are votes that are up for grabs."
If those votes which Republicans used to be able to count on are now truly in play, it is because recent trends have driven a wedge between the GOP and the 19 percent -- two trends in particular: First, the cynical use of religion to garner votes. Second, the proliferation of a shrill and misleading complex of conservative think tanks, television and talk radio personalities.
"When Rudolph Giuliani was still a contender for the Republican nomination in 2008," Pally writes, "Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, pointed out that if abortion were taken 'off the table, other issues would get oxygen, issues where evangelicals are not nearly as certain that Republicans offer the best answer.'" It is stunning to hear an official from a Christian organization actually admitting Christians should care about a wide range of social issues, but to take emphasis off of the one central issue -- in this case abortion -- would erode political power, so it is never done. It's a classic case of political ideology trumping Christian faith, and the 19 percent is tired of it.
No doubt some on the left will greet this as good news. As a Christian I think it points to a deeper issue: too often Christian identity is considered subservient to politics instead of the other way around. Christians must never attempt to enact their religion through politics, because this move bows to the assumption that the ultimate power in our culture is the power of the state. Until recently, most evangelicals who yield to the assumption of preeminent state power have lived by an ideology shaped more by Rush and Glenn than by Jesus. That Milton Friedman holds more sovereignty over the lives of many evangelicals than does the Sermon on the Mount has caused an insurmountable tension in the hearts of the 19 percent, for whom the abortion issue no longer sits by itself atop their list of concerns. The 19 percent seem convinced that poverty is a moral issue as well; that economic & social justice is a paramount human concern which transcends not only left/right distinctions, but all of culture and history. This spells trouble for the GOP.
The New Evangelicals have grown weary of a generation of conservative politicians who have learned to speak the "code" language of Christians in order to win political support. The most recent example of this was Rick Perry's video promise to fight president Obama's "war on religion." Although some see Perry's video as the last gasp of a flagging campaign, it will probably be successful among evangelicals who remain allied with the secular right. The 19 percent, however, will see it as an insidious attempt to prey upon those who have not yet learned to spot the kind of insincerity former Bush Administration staffer David Kuo wrote about in his book Tempting Faith. Kuo described how the Bush Administration cynically placated culture --moving evangelicals, courting their support while mocking them behind closed doors, calling Pat Robertson "insane," Jerry Falwell "ridiculous," and saying that James Dobson needed to be "controlled."
To date, the definitive work on the current problems within the GOP appeared in New York Magazine this past November. It was written by Republican insider David Frum, a Bush speechwriter and conservative author/commentator. Frum's scathing assessment of the hyper-conservative turn in the GOP further explains the reticence of the 19 percent to support the political right. He outlines "fevered anxieties" which have fueled "ultralibertarianism, crank monetary theories, populist fury, and paranoid visions of a Democratic Party controlled by ACORN and the New Black Panthers." This is a committed Republican writing -- mind you. He's not switching sides, but he's apparently hitting a little close to home. Frum says he has been blacklisted at Fox News, where he used to appear regularly.
The truth is that Fox News and Talk Radio have to share much of the blame for the stubborn independence of the 19 percent. Frum notes that extremism makes for great entertainment, but it is an impossible way to run a country. He says, "Over the past two decades conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment... the business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting a mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel). As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly... as journalism, not so much."
Frum explains how thought leaders on Fox and talk radio are backed by their own wing of the publishing industry and supported by conservative think tanks "that increasingly function as public-relations agencies." He says, "Conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics... We used to say 'You're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.' Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information." Those are strong words when you consider that they are written by a committed Republican who once wrote a book on the brilliance of William F. Buckley. The net effect? The radical right turn has transformed the GOP into the party of "no" which would rather win political points than govern -- so the 19 percent checked out.
Ultimately the marriage between evangelicals and the Republican Party is breaking up - and this is good news. Christians are a people of permanent hope who refuse to buy into the kind of cynicism which has fueled the conservative market segment. The 19 percent can't stand the doomsday world of right wing pundits and personalities. Even those, myself included, who naturally tend toward the political right, find the Chicken Little routine repugnant. It will never win us over.
Although the tendency for the 19 percent will be to migrate to the ever expanding Christian left, I believe this too is problematic (stay tuned for part three). Instead, we need to embrace the reality that cultivating Christian identity over and against any party affiliation is the essential Christian political move. Though it may be seen as a betrayal by those who have confused conservatism for Christianity, the most distinctively Christian political act is to reject the state's claim to ultimate power, and to reserve that place for God alone. Full participation in either party means giving our proxy to leaders who would disingenuously use religion as a political tactic without batting an eye, and who would intentionally lie and mislead in order to win our votes. Until something changes, neither party deserves that kind of respect.