Evangelicals at a Crossroads As Falwell's Generation Fades
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
If the Rev. Jerry Falwell personified the Christian right in the past, then the Rev. Frank S. Page may represent its future.
From his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., where his funeral will be held today, Falwell gave evangelicals a strong political voice. But it was often the voice of a sure and angry prophet, as when he blamed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in part on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians," or described warnings about global warming as "Satan's attempt" to turn the church's attention from evangelism to environmentalism.
Page, 54, was chosen last year as president of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, Falwell's denomination and the country's largest evangelical one, in an election that he saw as a mandate for change.
"I would not use the word 'moderate,' because in our milieu that often means liberal. But it's a shift toward a more centrist, kinder, less harsh style of leadership," Page said. "In the past, Baptists were very well known for what we're against. . . . Instead of the caricature of an angry, narrow-minded, Bible-beating preacher, we wanted someone who could speak to normal people."
With members of an older generation of evangelical leaders, including the Rev. Billy Graham, the Rev. Pat Robertson, psychologist James C. Dobson and the Rev. D. James Kennedy, ailing or nearing retirement, Page is one of many pastors and political activists tugging conservative Christians in various directions.
Others include the Rev. Rick Warren and the Rev. William Hybels, megachurch pastors who are championing the fight against AIDS in Africa. David Barton, head of a Texas-based group called WallBuilders, stumps the nation decrying the "myth" that the Constitution requires separation of church and state. The Rev. Joel Hunter of Orlando urges evangelicals to see climate change as a serious religious issue, because "our first order in the Garden was to take care of the Earth."
Although Falwell's personal influence had been waning for years, his death at age 73 last week threw into stark relief the current headless state of the political movement he founded with the establishment of the Moral Majority in 1978.
Headless does not mean weak. In the view of many social conservatives, their organizational structures -- from megachurches to Christian colleges, broadcasting networks and public interest law firms -- have never been stronger.
"It would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that because there is not one obvious or a few obvious leaders of this movement, that the movement is waning," said Mark DeMoss, president of an Atlanta-based public relations firm that works primarily for evangelical organizations.
But John C. Green, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said four factors combine to make this a time of flux on the religious right.
There is no single leader who stands astride the movement as Falwell once did. Nor has a 2008 presidential contender emerged to galvanize the ranks. A generation gap is emerging between younger and older evangelicals on subjects such as homosexuality. And a sometimes bitter debate is pitting evangelicals who want to keep their political activity tightly focused on a few issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, against those who want to embrace a broader agenda, including climate change and global poverty.
All these shifts present opportunities for younger leaders. But they also pose the possibility that the movement will become more fragmented.
"The evangelical movement as a political force is in a serious state of transition," Page said. "With the passing of Jerry Falwell, evangelicals are struggling to try to find the kind of cohesion he represented. That was going on even before he died."
When Falwell dissolved the Moral Majority in 1989, the leadership torch was picked up by Robertson at the Christian Coalition. After that group ran into financial and management problems in the late 1990s, leadership passed to Dobson's radio ministry, Focus on the Family.
"Falwell's death highlights the inevitable change in the leadership of conservative Christians," Green said. "The big question is whether there will be one prominent leader for this movement, as there was most of the time in the past, or whether there will be many leaders, making the movement more diffuse and perhaps less influential."
DeMoss said he thinks "there will never be such a single, dominant leader of the movement again."
Page agrees. "We're in an anti-hero age. People shoot at anybody who comes to a certain level of prominence," he said. "We're in a time of real doubt and disturbing lack of loyalty to causes. We see people having a hard time pulling together."
The absence of a national evangelical political leader was masked in recent years by the presence of President Bush, who served as a rallying point. But the Rev. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the only candidates in 2008 with wide appeal to evangelicals are ones, such as former governor Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), who do not appear able to win.
Land noted that the leading Republican in the polls, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, has been married three times and supports abortion rights. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has opposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is a Mormon who adamantly supported legalized abortion in previous runs for office, though he has changed his position.
Faced with this field, some evangelicals have suggested that a Democratic victory might be a good thing. "If 2008 is a bad year for the Republican Party, there will be nothing like a liberal president to help that movement find its footing again," said Gary Bauer, president of the conservative group American Values.
Polls suggest that evangelicals under 30 are just as staunchly opposed to abortion, and almost as concerned about "moral standards" in general, as their elders. But a February Pew survey found that younger evangelicals are more likely than their parents to worry about environmental issues; 59 percent of those under 30 said the United States was "losing ground" on pollution, compared with 37 percent of those over 30.
Acceptance of homosexuality is also greater among young evangelicals. One in three under 30 favors same-sex marriage, compared with one in 10 of their elders.
Redeem the Vote, a group formed in 2004 to register young evangelicals to vote, is campaigning with black churches in Alabama for capping the interest charges on short-term "payday" loans, which can hit 400 percent a year. The group's founder, physician Randy Brinson, said he finds that young evangelicals are intensely interested in practical ways to help their communities and are little swayed by issues such as same-sex marriage.
"These kids have gone to school with people who happen to be gay, and they don't see them as a direct threat. They may think that lifestyle is wrong, but they don't see it as something that really affects their daily lives," Brinson said. "The groups that focus only on a narrow agenda, especially gay marriage and abortion, are going to decline."