As the absurd theater of the Republican primaries continues its itinerary from state to state, it at least serves one useful purpose: It puts to rest the notion that religion no longer matters in American politics. Actually the GOP is now dominated by two varieties of fundamentalism—the religious one, focused single-mindedly on matters south of the navel—and the economic one, which affirms the dogma that all taxes are the work of the devil. The latter belief system does not concern me here. But the former also indicates that the American culture war between traditionalists and progressives is by no means over, and that it continues to define the public image of the two major parties. Religious conservatives, notably Evangelicals, continue to gravitate toward the Republican party. Secularists continue to feel more at home in the Democratic party. This division, of course, is not absolute, and there have been some efforts to poach on the other’s ideological territory. But the bifurcation persists. Is it irreversible? The question is important: If the answer is no, this would be a bit of good news if one hopes for an end to the paralyzing polarization that now characterizes the political scene.
As one ponders this question, one may turn to a useful article in Society magazine, “The Evangelical Left and the Future of Social Conservatism”, by David Swartz (a historian on the faculty of Asbury University). Swartz does not argue that the affinity between Evangelicals and the Republican party is about to end, but he suggests that this situation is more complicated and more changeable than it seems. Specifically, there is a growing generational difference in the Evangelical community. Younger Evangelicals increasingly resemble their peers in the larger society. The larger picture is described by Swartz as follows: “On the one hand, younger Americans are more pro-life on abortion, one of the typical measures of social conservatism. On the other hand, younger Americans increasingly support gay marriage and seem to be elevating economics above traditional morality. The old categories… do not seem to hold.” Or at least they are being reshuffled. Younger Evangelicals are part of the reshuffling.
The present political frequency distribution of Godders and non-Godders is relatively new. There has been an Evangelical Left in the Democratic party at least as early as William Jennings Bryan, who combined progressive views as then understood with a fierce belief in Biblical inerrancy (which Clarence Darrow successfully ridiculed in the famous Dayton “monkey trial”). It is also worth recalling that the resurgent conservative movement burst onto the political scene with the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, who had little interest in traditional morality. It was only in the 1970s that religious conservatives moved into the Republican party in large numbers. This move included religiously conservative Catholics and Jews, but Evangelicals were an important segment of what became an important Republican demographic. A pivotal moment in this development was the 1980 White House Conference on the Family, then very significantly renamed White House Conference on Families. The renaming of course was a concession to feminists, who effectively took over the event. Conservatives walked out of the conference. It is important that the idea of the conference was first proposed by Jimmy Carter during his presidential campaign and realized when he was still in the White House. Religious conservatives had invested high hopes in the election of this born-again Baptist. One of them, a good friend of mine, had said that “the election of Jimmy Carter marks the end of the secular Enlightenment”. Alas, it meant nothing of the sort. Carter’s capitulation at the White House conference was the culmination of a mounting disappointment in him on the part of Evangelicals who had thought of him as one of them. The disappointment extended to the Democratic party as a whole. What followed was the rise of the Christian Right, closely identified with the Republican party and marching under the banner of “family values”—which meant, and still means, values opposed to those of radical feminists and other sexual liberation movements.
The leadership of the Democratic party was understandably unhappy about this exodus of many who had been part of its core constituency in the past. While having to keep the adherence of secular progressives, Democratic leaders have also tried to woo the Godders, and especially Evangelicals. In the 2008 election both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appointed very visible Evangelicals to their staffs. An interesting figure is Joshua DuBois—born as recently as 1982, an African-American Pentecostal minister, with an M.A. in public affairs from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. After serving on Obama’s campaign staff, he is now head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the White House. Obama has made much of his Christian faith, and this effort has survived his disastrous choice of a church affiliation in Chicago. I know of no comparable efforts by Republicans to woo secular progressives (though I suppose that so-called “Massachusetts moderates” have engaged, albeit mutedly, in such a project).
Swartz cites recent findings from surveys of the Pew Research Center: Since 2005 young white Evangelicals’ identification with the Republican party has dropped by 15%, but identification with the Democratic party has only risen by 5%. Presumably disenchanted Evangelicals have joined the large group of independents, whose number has jumped by 10%. Swartz believes that an important factor in the future will be the Democratic handling of pro-life Evangelicals (as well, of course, of pro-life Catholics).
The political profile of Evangelicals seems to be tripartite. There continues to be a strong segment of Evangelicals who will be an important Republican constituency. There is also a vocal but still relatively small Evangelical Left, visibly represented by Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, supposedly a “spiritual advisor” to President Obama (if so, certainly an improvement on Jeremiah Wright!). Wallis disavows the “Left” label, but he has been associated with progressive causes, most recently with the Occupy Wall Street movement. At the same time, he is staunchly traditional on abortion and same-sex marriage. The third component in this profile is the most interesting. Variously called “freestyle Evangelicals” or “cosmopolitan Evangelicals”, they strongly reject identification with either political party, affirming that the core of the Gospel is beyond politics. They adhere to traditional moral values, but seek to balance them with various social causes (such as combating hunger, or AIDS, or sex trafficking). In terms of politics, their stance is best described as one of mediation. This is most clearly the case with their most visible representative—Rick Warren, pastor of the huge Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and author of the astronomically successful bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. In 2008 Warren staged the strictly nonpartisan Civil Forum on the Presidency, where he separately interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain on national television. Like Wallis, Warren holds traditional moral values, but he does not put them at the center of his public ministry. Unlike Wallis, he keeps a distance from the Democratic party, although he agreed to give the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. If I were Jimmy the Greek, I would bet that the “freestyle Evangelicals” are most likely to be prominent, and possibly dominant, in the future.
There is nothing intrinsically secular in the Democratic party, nor intrinsically religious in the GOP. The bifurcated situation is the result of a series of historical accidents, but once established, it is not easy to change. The hardliners are always crucially important suppliers of funders and activists. The primary system, that peculiar institution of American politics, guarantees that contenders for public office must first keep the hardliners happy while seeking nomination, and must then move away from them in order to be elected. As we have learned all too clearly, this fatal progression from hypocrisy to betrayal undermines the middle on which any healthy democracy depends.
For the health of American democracy one should hope for more Evangelical Democrats and more secular Republicans. If I were one of those billionaires being asked by President Obama to contribute their “fare share”, I would endow a foundation with the sole aim of supporting that vital middle. The foundation’s first grants would be to two new organizations, Democrats Against Same-Sex Marriage, and The Association of Republican Abortionists. (This would in no way imply ideological identification with these two causes.)