A New Kind of Evangelical Presence
Religion & Liberty Online

A New Kind of Evangelical Presence

Pundits and pollsters are sorting out the results of Tuesday’s elections day-by-day now. Most are agreed that these mid-term elections do not signal a huge victory for the political left. But why? The Democrats did win both houses of Congress didn’t they?

  1. Most of the seats lost by Republicans were lost to candidates as a result of the Democrats running men and women who were far less extreme than the voices of the post-60s crowd that has controlled their party for decades. Think of Robert Casey, Jr. and Harold Ford, Jr. as two basic examples.
  2. American is still fundamentally religious, with upwards of 85% expressing allegiance to some organized faith and a third still attending a house of worship weekly. The Democrats took this far more seriously in this most recent election cycle. Time will tell what this means and how it will play out but I expect more pro-life candidates from the Democratic Party in the coming years. One can at least hope and pray for such. In a recent Pew Research study only one in four thought this party was “friendly toward religion.”
  3. The polls say 21% of Americans call themselves liberal, 33% conservative and 46% say they are moderate. While I am not sure what the “moderate” classification means it is obvious liberals are still the minority. (By the way, the designation Independent has more adherents than either Republican or Democrat.)My guess is that if you used my own label of “progressive conservative” you would gain the majority of the middle.
  4. There is every reason to believe that this election was lost by the Republicans, not won by the Democrats. I personally hope that the leaders of the Democratic Party will use their new power appropriately but there are a number of wild cards to be watched very carefully. The greatest immediate loss will likely be in the appointment of more restrained judges given Joe Biden’s new role in the Senate.
  5. The Democratic influence over the African-American vote is still tenuous, even though the numbers do not reveal this strongly yet. Stephen Carter, in his book, The Dissent of the Governed, describes two black women who said that “they preferred a place that honored their faith and disdained their politics over a place that honored their politics and disdained their faith.” Will this thinking grow? The overwhelming majority of older blacks believe, and generally for good reasons, that the Democratic Party is the party that gave them their civil rights. The political impact of this historic fact could be changing, though slowly for sure. Religious Democrats are more likely to change their party affiliation, nearly four times as often as Republicans, according to a National Election Surveys study. This trend also needs to be watched.
  6. The party that can rightly appeal to the newest Hispanic voters will have greater success in the future. The Republicans made large gains in 2004 but went backwards on Tuesday. The debate about “illegal immigrants” is politically loaded. The next Congress will likely take up this issue and the President may get his way after all. This again should be watched. The strong arguments on the left and the right may be moderated in the 110th Congress by a comprehensive agreement the president can and will sign. Personally, I hope so.
  7. And what about young people? The numbers are not clear yet but in 2004 the number of young people moving toward the conservative category increased by 143%. There may have been a slowdown in this trend on Tuesday but I doubt it is a huge shift yet in terms of long-term practice.

In addition to these observations, a number of cultural patterns strengthen the conservative cause. Besides volunteerism being higher on the right, add to these various observations things like fertility patterns (conservatives have far more children than liberals) and the effects of education. All in all, you have some major trends favoring a more conservative direction for the future.
Arthur C. Brooks, a professor of public affairs at Syracuse University, concluded just before the Tuesday election that “it is undeniable that the true ideological battle in America goes far deeper than a midterm election.”

My personal hope is that a more progressive form of conservatism, interested still in issues like marriage and pro-life, but also interested in genocide, global AIDS and human trafficking, will finally emerge. In Newsweek, former Bush speech writer Michael Gerson, a Wheaton College graduate who majored in Bible, argues that there is evidence this is what is actually happening. He writes, after visiting college campuses in recent months:

Many evangelicals have begun elbowing against the narrowness of the religious right, becoming more globally focused and more likely to consider themselves “pro-life and pro-poor.” Depending on your perspective, this may be creeping liberalism or political maturity. But where did it come from?

Gerson says this direction comes from the following (his observations are in italics and mine follow):

  1. Reacting to harsh rhetoric on the religious right, many have gone back to the text of the Bible. The result may be a more politically progressive evangelicalism.
  2. This new evangelicalism is a positive legacy of the religious right because of the involvement of Roman Catholics in their journey. Having spent a considerable amount of time among Catholics since 1999 I affirm this strongly.
  3. The global focus of the new evangelicalism reflects a southward shift in Christianity itself. Philip Jenkins has documented this and more and more thoughtful evangelicals have become aware of this trend by visiting the global south and seeing the fast-growth of evangelicalism in this region. Serious evangelicals are not focused only on America but the whole world.

Gerson adds, “While many evangelicals are impatient with the priorities of the religious right, it would be a mistake to argue that they are disillusioned by politics itself. The new evangelicals are not calling for cultural retreat, but for broader engagement. Politics, at its best, has the goal of serving your neighbor” (emphasis mine).

Gerson then sings a song that I have wanted to hear for several decades from evangelicals when he says:

Republicans will find it increasingly difficult to appeal to the new evangelicals with tired symbols like school prayer or the posting of the Ten Commandments.

Personally, I hope these issues simply go away. They are, quite frankly, irrelevant at best and a positive political and social nuisance at worst.

Gerson also says that this new evangelicalism is “more a tendency than a movement.” It will need, he says, a “series of great moral objectives” and those it seems presently interested in are global health, race and poverty and the frontiers of medicine. Gerson adds:

A new evangelicalism should be distinctive for its tone as well. The goal is not only to stand for Christianity’s moral teachings but to emulate the manner of its Founder, who showed that kindness is not weakness, and had more tenderness for moral outcasts than for moral hypocrites.

The media is not tracking this shift. They still like to feature the old voices of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson and then advance the silly argument that every religious conservative is a theocon who has an agenda to capture America for God and then take away personal liberties.

A more moderate Congress may actually allow President Bush to get some positive things done. It seems to me that the old Congress was led by a party, and by leaders with a great deal of personal corruption and moral cowardice. Many seemed interested in preserving their power more than serving the country and following good leadership. Maybe new blood will make a difference. Time will tell. But things can, and likely will, change significantly by 2008. Do not drop out of the process if you are a Christian. But do make the renewal of your life and your local church a much higher priority than politics since this is where the most important work of cultural and social renewal begins for committed Christians. Maybe 2006 has reminded us of this simple fact. I pray so. We still need a massive movement of true revival in the worst way.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

John Armstrong

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."