GOP Candidates Risk Turning the Gospel Into Bad News

06/30/2015 02:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

While Republican presidential candidates woo white evangelicals with their professions of piety and dark warnings about the oppression of Christians, a well-known evangelical ministry is gearing up for a very different outreach in a dramatically different setting.

International evangelist Luis Palau and his organization are in the final stages of preparing a massive evangelism festival in New York City. They're bringing together Asians, blacks, Latinos, and whites from hundreds of churches for a Central Park crescendo expected to pull in tens of thousands of people in July. The festival follows months of community service by the mostly evangelical churches, which they pledge to continue.

Let's hope the Christian Republicans running for president hear about this expression of the gospel in New York -- and think for a minute about what they are telling the world about Christianity. In stark contrast to the show of faith happening in Gotham, this crew running for president is turning the gospel into the opposite of good news.

To be sure, the job of the politician and evangelist are very different. The GOP contenders making the round in Iowa are trying to win votes, not souls. Their rhetoric about persecution of Christians and assaults on religious freedom goes over well, no doubt, with the older and staunchly conservative audiences that tend to participate in Iowa's GOP caucuses and vote in the early primary states. (And, to be fair, persecution has been part of Christianity's message and history since the beginning, and a painful experience being endured today in parts of the Middle East.)

The problem is, the rest of the country can hear this dire message, too. And the sound of it is grating -- especially to the ears of many in the younger demographic, the people who are flocking to the much-discussed religious affiliation category called the "nones," as in no organized religion.

Listen to what's coming these days from the GOP candidates campaigning in Iowa and the other states with early turns in the nominating process, and what stands out is the sound of wagons circling and Peter crying "wolf."

Mike Huckabee warns that the country is "moving rapidly toward the criminalization of Christianity." Ted Cruz portrays the rapid of advance gay rights and other forms of social change as assaults on Christianity. Bobby Jindal complains that President Obama and other liberals are more tolerant of Islamic terrorists than wholesome, God-fearing traditional Christians here in the United States.

It ought to alarm those interested in the long-term well-being of the Republican party and Christian religion that this exaggerated message of victimization is what the eavesdroppers are hearing as they go about forming impressions that will endure through the general election -- and, in the case of younger people, possibly for a lifetime.

A survey released earlier last month by the Pew Research Center shows astonishingly rapid growth in the percentage of Americans who are not part of any religion, to the point where "nones" are second only to evangelicals on the list of the most populous religious-identification categories. The percentage identifying as Christian has dropped from 78 to 70.

The trend toward secularity is especially pronounced among young adults -- those with the longest futures ahead of them. Research by the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell shows that the perceived capture of Christianity by conservative politics has contributed to the flight of younger people from churches. This is an "election" that matters, too.

Bring up the trend lines with the man coordinating the churches' combined efforts in New York and you might be surprised by his non-anxious response. Kevin Palau, president of his father's evangelism ministry, speaks excitedly of the success of this campaign in uniting different races and previously unconnected churches to volunteer in schools, beautify public gardens, and the like while rallying people for the Central Park faith celebration.

"It's good news that the church is coming together in the most diverse context imaginable," says Palau, the author of a new book called Unlikely that recounts his organization's successes in finding common ground with nonreligious liberals and other unlikely allies. "And it's good news for New York that the churches are serving and loving the city."

Asked about the fast-growing ranks of the nonreligious, Palau says, "The church still has a great role to play in bearing witness and demonstrating unconditional love for people."

Is it too much to expect Republican presidential candidates to speak about their faith in the same optimistic way -- or at least temper their scare claims with some sense of proportion? No, it's not. After all, they tell us over and over how seriously they take their Christianity. If they are going to leverage their faith for political advantage, they ought to accept responsibility for giving a good account of it.

"Good news." That's the emphasis of the large-scale faith demonstration happening in New York. It's what the gospel is supposed to be about.

Someone needs to remind the pious presidential candidates spreading all that bad news to Christian voters on the campaign trail.