News Intelligence Analysis
From the New York Times
Putting Faith Before Politics
By DAVID KUO
November 16, 2006
SINCE 1992, every national Republican electoral defeat has been accompanied by an obituary for the religious right. Every one of these obituaries has been premature after these losses, the religious right only grew stronger. After the defeat of President George H. W. Bush in 1992, the conventional wisdom held that Christian evangelicals would be chastened. As one major magazine put it, Mr. Bushs defeat meant that time had run out on their crusade to create a Christian America. Yet in the next two years, the Christian Coalition grew by leaps and bounds; in 1994, it helped usher in the Gingrich revolution.
In 1996, after Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole, Margaret Tutwiler, a Republican strategist, declared that in order for Republicans to win, Were going to have to take on the religious nuts. Two years later, after Republicans failed to gain any ground on Democrats despite Mr. Clintons impeachment John Zogby, the pollster, concluded that Christian absolutism scared voters. Wrong again. Those same Christian absolutists helped sweep George W. Bush into office in 2000.
Jesus was resurrected only once. The religious right has been resurrected at least twice in just the past 15 years.
The conventional wisdom about the Democratic thumping of Republicans last week says something a little different about the religious right that its members are beginning to migrate to the Democratic Party. The statistic that is exciting Democrats the most is that nearly 30 percent of white evangelicals, the true Republican base, voted Democratic. In addition, the red-blue split of weekly churchgoers has narrowed. Commentators are atwitter about the shrinking God gap.
Once again, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Yes, it is true that almost 30 percent of white evangelicals voted for the Democrats, up from the 22 percent Senator John Kerry received in the 2004 presidential race. But that 2004 number was aberrantly low. More typical were exit polls from the 1996 Congressional election, where 25 percent of white evangelicals voted for Democrats.
So before rearranging their public policy agenda in hopes of attracting evangelicals, the Democrats would be wise to think twice. There has been a radical change in the attitudes of evangelicals its just not one that will automatically be in the Democrats favor.
You see, evangelicals arent re-examining their political priorities nearly as much as they are re-examining their spiritual priorities. That could be bad news for both political parties.
John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, the conservative Christian organization that gained notoriety during the 1990s when it represented Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton, wrote this after the elections: Modern Christianity, having lost sight of Christs teachings, has been co-opted by legalism, materialism and politics. Simply put, it has lost its spirituality.
He went on, Whereas Christianity was once synonymous with charity, compassion and love for ones neighbor, today it is more often equated with partisan politics, anti-homosexual rhetoric and affluent mega-churches.
Mr. Whitehead is hardly alone. Just before the elections, Gordon MacDonald, an evangelical leader, wrote that he was concerned that some evangelical personalities had been seduced and used by the White House. He worried that the movement might fragment because it is more identified by a political agenda that seems to be failing and less identified by a commitment to Jesus and his kingdom.
Certainly, the White House showed the heartlessness of politics in Ted Haggards fall. Mr. Haggard had once been welcomed at the White House, relied on to rally other evangelicals and invited to pray with the president.
Yet his downfall provoked only this reaction from a low-level White House spokesman: He had been on a couple of calls, but was not a weekly participant in those calls. I believe hes been to the White House one or two times. To evangelicals who know that this statement was misleading, and know from the Bible what being kicked to the curb looks like, it was a revealing moment about the unchristian behavior politics inspires.
Perhaps thats why a rift appears to be growing in what was once a strong alliance. Beliefnet.coms post-election online survey of more than 2,000 people revealed that nearly 40 percent of evangelicals support the idea of a two-year Christian fast from intense political activism. Instead of directing their energies toward campaigns, evangelicals would spend their time helping the poor.
Why might such an idea get traction among evangelicals? For practical reasons as well as spiritual ones. Evangelicals are beginning to see the effect of their political involvement on those with whom they hope to share Jesus eternal message: non-evangelicals. Tellingly, Beliefnets poll showed that nearly 60 percent of non-evangelicals have a more negative view of Jesus because of Christian political involvement; almost 40 percent believe that George W. Bushs faith has had a negative impact on his presidency.
There is also the matter of the record, which I saw being shaped during my time in the White House. Conservative Christians (like me) were promised that having an evangelical like Mr. Bush in office was a dream come true. Well, it wasnt. Not by a long shot. The administration accomplished little that evangelicals really cared about.
Nowhere was this clearer than on the issue of abortion. Despite strong Republican majorities, and his own pro-life stands, Mr. Bush settled for the largely symbolic partial-birth abortion restriction rather than pursuing more substantial change. Then there were the forgotten commitments to give faith-based charities the resources they needed to care for the poor. Evangelicals are not likely to fall for such promises in the future.
Dont expect conservative Christians in politics to start to disappear, of course. There are those who find the moral force of issues like abortion and gay marriage equal to that of the abolition of slavery worth pursuing no matter what the risks of politics are for the soul. But the advocates working these special interests may, I think, be far fewer in coming years than in years past. Gay marriage was a less mobilizing force in 2006 than it was in 2004. In Arizona the ballot measure to outlaw it was defeated. The South Dakota abortion ban failed.
We will have to wait until 2008 to see just how deep this evangelical spiritual re-examination goes, and how seductive politics will continue to be to committed Christians. Meanwhile, evangelicals arent flocking to the Democratic Party. If anything, they are becoming more truly conservative in their recognition of the negative spiritual consequences of political obsession and of the limitations of government power.
C. S. Lewis once warned that any Christian who uses his faith as a means to a political end would corrupt both his faith and the faith writ large. A lot of Christians are reading C. S. Lewis these days.
David Kuo, the deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2001 to 2003, is the author of Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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