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It's Not Your Father's Religious Right

By David Kuo
Sunday, February 24, 2008

Who will govern the new religious right?

History may look back at this Republican primary season and judge that answering that question -- not determining the nominee -- could be its greatest significance. Even if Sen. John McCain wins the race for the White House, he's likely, at his age, to be a one-term, caretaker president. But a newly reconstituted religious right will be helping determine who wins the presidency for decades. So whoever ends up heading it will potentially enjoy a much more powerful position.

That there's now a pitched battle for the soul of the religious right is a horrifying thought to Republican leaders long familiar with the old religious right, a hierarchical group dominated by larger-than-life figures who'd anointed themselves Jesus's political representatives. But that movement is withering at the top and in revolt at the grass-roots.

Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, two of the most formidable religious right leaders of the past quarter-century, have died. Evangelical stalwarts James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson are moving ever closer to retirement. Meanwhile, a slew of self-appointed political shepherds are becoming politically marginalized and out of touch with an increasingly independent evangelical flock.

Just look at this primary season. Even after Robertson endorsed him, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani got a paltry 2 percent of the evangelical vote in Iowa and an only slightly less measly 3 percent in South Carolina. Despite endorsements from leading figures on the right including Paul Weyrich and Bob Jones III, Mitt Romney could never overcome anti-Mormon sentiments, especially among Southern Baptists.

And Fred Thompson's campaign sputtered out despite enthusiasm from leading evangelicals who were confident that they knew where their sheep were going. Particularly misguided was Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, who gushed last July, "I have never seen anything like this grass-roots swell for Thompson. I'm not speaking for Southern Baptists, but I do believe I have my hand on the pulse of Southern Baptists and I think I know where the consensus is." Wrong.

But saying that the old religious right is passing isn't the same as saying that the political movement of theologically conservative Christians is dead. Far from it.

Evangelicals are still the largest single voting bloc in the country. Demographersand political scientists agree that 10 to 20 years from now, there will be more self-described "born agains" in the United States than there are today, for simple reasons: Evangelical Christians are more likely to have larger families and more likely to bring new converts into the faith.

But what will this new religious right look like? And who will lead it? Here are some predictions.

It will probably be more progressive -- but not liberal. A late July online poll of 1,000 evangelicals from Beliefnet.com found that 60 percent identified themselves as part of a political movement interested more in "protecting the environment, tackling HIV/AIDS, alleviating poverty and promoting human rights and less on abortion and homosexuality." Among the issues most concerning them were reducing poverty, improving health care and education, and stopping torture.

Their progressivism, however, only goes so far. Seventy percent still said that ending abortion was important or very important; almost 50 percent opposed same-sex marriage.

That some evangelicals are enthusiastic about a more compassionate politics isn't new. After all, in 2000, a relatively young evangelical governor with a powerful story of personal redemption ran for president. He talked about poverty and education and reminded conservatives that government could be used for good, constructive purposes. I even recall that he pledged $8 billion a year in funding for faith-based charities.

What's new is how widespread social justice issues are in the evangelical world. Leading New Testament theologian N.T. Wright, a conservative, says that the greatest moral issue today is not abortion but the economic inequality between the United States and Europe and the developing world.

A trip to Africa that I recently took with a dozen evangelical writers underscored the evolution in evangelical thinking. Our group included men and women of varying ages, races and political orientation united by a common, orthodox evangelical theology. Some of us were long-time social justice advocates, but for many in the group -- especially those who were politically conservative -- it was a new and passionate cause. The most conservative among us were not about to vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton, but they were vocal about demanding social justice policies from their conservative candidates.

It isn't likely to be Democratic -- yet. For all the talk about evangelicals moving to the Democratic Party, early evidence of this is scarce. Poll after poll has shown extreme evangelical distaste for Clinton, and there is scant statistical evidence to suggest that evangelicals are rushing to Obama.

Times may be changing, however, with younger evangelicals leading the way across the aisle. When a recent poll by Relevant, a magazine targeting evangelicals under 25, asked respondents who they believed "Jesus would vote for," a plurality said Obama. They also said they thought that Bill Clinton was a better president than George W. Bush has been and that illegal immigration was the most important issue facing the next president. "Young Christians simply don't seem to feel a connection to the traditional religious right," says Cameron Strang, the magazine's founder and publisher. "Many differ strongly on domestic policy issues -- namely issues that affect the poor -- and are dissatisfied with America's foreign policy and the war."

The new movement is likely to be more spiritually cautious and politically shrewd.

As Bush's presidency has foundered, evangelicals have started to take spiritual stock of their passionate support for their evangelical pastor in chief. First came the retreat. A review of Federal Elections Commission data from last fall revealed that only 30 percent of those who gave campaign money in 2004 contributed this time around to the campaigns of McCain, Huckabee, Romney, Guiliani or any of the other GOP candidates.

More significantly, preachers galore started telling their congregations to just say no to partisan politics. At the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., the pastor who succeeded the uber-political Ted Haggard has declared his pulpit "politics free." In Minnesota, evangelical mega-church pastor Greg Boyd preaches that the radical life of a Christian doesn't include politics. Meanwhile, evangelicalism's biggest star, Rick Warren, is decidedly absent from domestic politics, preferring to spend his time working on HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Bush's fall from grace has also highlighted a spiritual reality as evangelicals have begun to sense just how damaging the fusion of Bush and Jesus has been to the perception of our Christian faith.

Beliefnet's poll revealed that a third of all evangelicals now believe that Christian political activism is "damaging to Christianity." This isn't an isolated poll. As Christian pollster David Kinnaman writes, "The number of young people in our culture who now embrace unflattering perspectives about Christians and politics is astounding. Three-quarters of young [non-Christians] and half of young churchgoers describe present-day Christianity as 'too involved in politics.' " Twenty percent of all evangelicals believe that adopting a conservative Christian political agenda has helped destroy the image of Jesus Christ.

For a community of believers such as evangelicals, for whom sharing Jesus's life-giving message is an essential part of life, this is a shock. It's evidence of misplaced priorities, of focusing far more on the city of man than on the City of God. So as evangelicals reengage this election cycle, they are doing so with increased political shrewdness. In Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina, no candidate won a majority of evangelicals. They no longer want a pastor in chief.

Which makes Mike Huckabee just the man to lead them.

Several weeks ago, an evangelical friend said to me that he thought Huckabee wasn't really running for president -- he was running to be the next Pat Robertson. At first I scoffed at the notion. But the more I've watched Huckabee and thought about it, the less silly the suggestion has sounded.

In 1988, Robertson ran for president and then ended up launching the Christian Coalition, the most influential religious right organization in history. Robertson's run brought more than a million new evangelicals to the polls and to his mailing list, which he handed over to a brilliant young political operative named Ralph Reed. And the rest is history.

So it's not impossible that when Huckabee is done not being the GOP nominee, he might just sit back, look at his list of donors and the gaping hole in leadership on the religious right and decide it's not so bad being king . . . maker.

David Kuo, former deputy director of the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is the author of "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction."

dkuoblog@mac.com

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