On Saturday, John McCain and Barack Obama will sit on the same stage for the first time during this presidential election. But don’t call it a debate. It is a “civil forum” hosted in the heart of conservative Orange County by megachurch pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren.
It is just the latest sign of a growing influence of the evangelical center that is delinking itself from the old-guard religious right by engaging on stereotypically liberal issues such as global poverty, climate change and AIDS — and in the process, opening up healthy and historic competition for America’s 75 million evangelical voters.
It was a born-again presidential candidate named Jimmy Carter who first brought evangelicals into the rough and tumble of modern presidential politics by gaining the endorsement of a Virginia preacher named Pat Robertson.
But evangelicals turned against the Democrats four years later when Rev. Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority to back Ronald Regan. It was soon joined by Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and the partisan modern religious right was born. Its influence reached an apex when President Bush won 78 percent of the evangelical vote in 2004.
But since President Bush’s reelection, a backlash has been brewing — even the pastor who officiated Jenna Bush’s wedding is supporting Obama. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the percent of young white evangelicals identifying themselves as Republican dropped from 55 percent to 40 percent between 2005 and 2007. It’s not a realignment as much as a dealignment — two-thirds of those ex-Republicans now describe themselves as independent.
Old stereotypes no longer hold. The comprehensive Pew study found that “most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith” — while 37 percent of faith voters call themselves conservative, 36 percent describe themselves as moderate and 20 percent say they are liberal. Likewise, when members of evangelical churches were asked their party affiliation, 38 percent said Republican and 24 percent said Democrat when first asked — but a striking 31 percent said independent.
Dr. Ronald Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, explains the larger trend, saying, “Today there is a strong evangelical center emerging that agrees that a biblically balanced agenda has to include pro-life, pro-family, pro-poor, pro-racial justice, pro-creation care and pro-peace-making.” The National Evangelical Association’s Richard Cizik uses more casual and colorful language, “The centrists are those of us who don’t engage in armchair Armageddonism.”
This evolution of the evangelical community is either a flowering or a fissure, depending on where you stand.
Obama has been cultivating the evangelical center since before his campaign began, making his personal faith the cornerstone of his political philosophy in a way that no Democrat has since Jimmy Carter. The Audacity of Hope contains an entire chapter on faith. Obama’s campaign printed fliers for evangelicals during the primaries. Early on, it showed signs of having an impact in unexpected places: Last October at the Family Research Council-sponsored Value Voters Forum — where only Republican candidates were invited to speak — Obama received 9 write-in votes.
Pivoting towards the general election, Obama has unveiled new evangelical initiatives. One inititative aims to inspire young evangelicals, while outside the campaign, the “Mathew 25 Network” PAC seeks to reach out on Democrats’ behalf. In a recent interview with Christian Broadcasting Network, he described a meeting with Franklin Graham and Max Lucado, “I opened up the meeting by quoting Ronald Reagan, which was saying ‘I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.’”
To be sure, McCain still has the edge with evangelical voters. He is anti-abortion, and while supporting embryonic stem cell research, he has a strong record on other centrist evangelical issues such as the environment and third-world missionary work (his daughter Brigit was adopted from a Bangladeshi orphanage run by Mother Teresa’s order).
But McCain is a man less comfortable wearing his faith on his sleeve, as his campaign admits in its new mailing to evangelicals, writing, “John McCain is a strong Christian, but he believes that, in the context of the campaign, his faith is a personal issue,” before reprinting eloquent passages from his book, “Faith of my Fathers,” on his reliance on Christ as a P.O.W. David Brody of CBN cautions against Republican overconfidence. “The McCain campaign CAN NOT be satisfied with thinking evangelicals and conservative faith voters will vote for McCain as long as they thoroughly demonize Obama. It won’t work.”
The overall race for religious voters is getting tighter, with a new faith voter poll by the Barna Group concluding that, “While some Christian voters seem to be questioning their early support for Obama, the McCain candidacy does not seem to be gaining momentum among evangelicals. … [But], if the current preferences stand pat, this would mark the first time in more than two decades that the born-again vote has swung toward the Democratic candidate.”
The rise of the evangelical center is a sign of a further maturing in American politics — a recognition by Democrats as well as Republicans that faith voters represent a strong current in the mainstream of contemporary American life, not something on the fringe or votes to be taken for granted. Healthy competition for religious votes may, in time, make our politics less divisive by undercutting the destructive idea that any one political party owns the Bible.