04/28/2008 11:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gains for the Democrats Among Evangelicals

In the past, the Republican Party has depended on unified support at election time from Evangelical Christians. But times are changing! There is evidence of a significant division emerging in the Evangelical ranks as the 2008 election approaches. Young Evangelicals, especially, are breaking ranks with older Evangelicals (over 40) and are more and more leaning towards voting Democratic.

Upon visiting more than twenty campuses of Evangelical colleges and universities over the past year, it became obvious to me that a significant minority of the students at these schools would not be voting Republican come November. While still maintaining conservative views on gay marriage and abortion, the hot-button issues that governed their voting in previous elections, these younger Evangelicals have broadened their agenda. They now have strong concerns about saving the environment; doing something about human trafficking for sexual purposes; stopping the genocide in Darfur; addressing the AIDS crisis in Africa; and ending poverty. These latter two issues have become especially important to them, in part because of the influence of the rock star Bono.

Given their broadened agendas, these younger Evangelicals are finding the Democrats, and especially Barack Obama, more on their wavelength.

The traditional spokespersons for the Evangelicals, such as Chuck Colson and James Dobson, have become alarmed about this drift away from the "Family Values" issues that they believe should be the overwhelming concerns of Evangelicals. They have expressed their displeasure in letters of protest circulated through the religious media.

While these elder statesmen of Evangelicalism have a strong hearing among the over-40 crowd, the younger Evangelicals have turned to new voices such as Jim Wallis of the Sojourners/Call to Renewal movement; Shane Claiborne, a leader with the Simple Way; and Brian McLaren of the Emergent Church movement. This new breed of leaders is certainly not part of the Religious Right.

What might not be apparent to outside observers is that this political drift has been, in part, due to disillusionment with the Republican Party among younger evangelicals. "After all," they reason, "the Evangelical vote was crucial in electing a Republican Congress, a Republican president, and establishing a conservative Supreme Court. Yet, during the two years the Republicans held sway, they made no attempt to overturn Roe vs. Wade. When they had the power to do so, the Republicans didn't even try." Furthermore, more and more young Evangelicals are increasingly aware that at least half of all abortions are economically driven. For instance, an unmarried, eighteen-year-old pregnant woman, working at a minimum wage job, without hospitalization and without provisions for daycare for a newborn child, is likely to resort to having an abortion. In response to a woman in such a predicament, the Republicans, who claim to be pro-life, have generally opposed using federal monies to provide the means to deal with these economic necessities that go with having a baby. Many young Evangelicals think that, given such economic realities, outlawing abortions would only drive desperate women to seek them through some "underground" means.

While they still remain conservative in respect to gay marriage, younger Evangelicals are upset by the efforts of their elders to curtail some basic civil rights of gays and lesbians. One of these young people on my own Eastern University campus remarked, "How can we tell these gay brothers and lesbian sisters that we love them, as Christians are called to do, and then turn around and want rulings that allow for firing them from jobs because of their sexual orientation; accept discrimination when it comes to their being able to serve in the military; and even prevent hospital visits for homosexual patients by their longstanding partners if the patient's parents object?" Younger Evangelicals contend that love requires justice, because justice is nothing more than love translated into social policies.

These young people are showing deep appreciation for what President Bush has done to increase monies provided to address the AIDS crisis in Africa and for his commitment to increase funding to feed the poor. But the president has lost points with them because of his past failures in dealing with global warming and because of the horrendous waste of life due to his failed policies in respect to the war in Iraq.

It's a long time between now and November, but the evidence is increasingly clear that something dramatic is happening among younger Evangelicals that is causing them to rethink their politics. The Democratic leadership is aware of this and is coming up with all kinds of ways to show that they are "religiously friendly." The party leaders have created what they call a "Faith in Action" committee in order to get input from religious leaders on policy matters and they have encouraged their candidates to be "up front" with their religious convictions. It's a new day for the Democrats when it comes to matters of faith, and the younger Evangelicals are aware of this and many of them are moving into the Democratic camp.