GOP Loyalty Not a Given For Young Evangelicals

By Krissah Williams Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

DULUTH, Ga. -- Jonathan Merritt is a Baptist preacher's son with a pristine evangelical lineage. It was his dad, the Rev. James Merritt, who reportedly brought President Bush to tears in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks when he called the president "God's man for this hour." The Rev. Jerry Falwell was like a grandfather.

"I grew up believing an evangelical couldn't be a Democrat," said Merritt, 25. "The two were mutually exclusive."

But in the past year, as the presidential campaign has focused on the country's problems, Merritt has begun to question the party of his father. There was his recent revelation that "God is green," a mission trip to orphanages in Brazil that caused him to worry about global poverty, an encounter with a growing strain of politically liberal evangelicalism that has taken off online, and a nagging sense that Bush's unpopularity has been an embarrassment to the evangelicals who overwhelmingly voted for him.

"When you look at the political party that has traditionally championed poverty, social justice and care for the least of these, it's not been the Republican Party," said Merritt, who now considers himself an "independent conservative" and is unsure whom he will vote for in November. "We are to honor the least of these above even ourselves. It's very difficult to reconcile totally."

He is part of a growing group of young born-again Christians standing on one of the many generational breaks surfacing in this election cycle. Merritt still shares his parents' conservative convictions on abortion, a core issue that forged Falwell's Moral Majority and brought evangelicals firmly into the Republican camp, but he says they are no longer enough for him to claim the Republican Party.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that while a majority of young white evangelicals describe themselves as conservative on social issues, slightly more identified this year as either independents or Democrats than as Republicans. In 2001, about the time that Merritt was working as precinct captain for the Republican Party, an overwhelming majority of young evangelicals identified with the GOP.

Merritt may no longer, but neither does he consider himself a Democrat. He is just the kind of young evangelical voter whom Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has targeted and Republican Sen. John McCain cannot afford to lose. In 2004, nearly eight in 10 white evangelicals supported Bush, according to exit polls. They accounted for a third of the president's total votes. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll of registered voters last month, McCain led Obama 67 percent to 25 percent among white evangelical Protestants. Obama's campaign is hoping that young evangelicals such as Merritt will be a way in.

McCain and Obama will try to appeal to them Saturday, when they sit down with Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California and one of the most influential evangelicals in the country. Warren, whose best-selling book "The Purpose Driven Life" helped shift the conversation in evangelical circles beyond culture wars to serving and loving others, is expected to ask the candidates about global poverty, the HIV/AIDS crisis and climate change. He is one of a new generation of evangelical leaders who have shaped Merritt's worldview.

"There's a shift in issue focus," said Joshua DuBois, 25, who was associate pastor of a small evangelical church and is responsible for Obama's faith outreach. "I don't think any young evangelical is ignoring the traditional values issues, but they are adding other issues, including poverty and war, and they are also looking at integrity and family."

Six months ago, after gaining national attention for publicly pushing Southern Baptists to become more environmentally aware and acknowledge climate change as a reality, Merritt received a call from an Obama staff member.

"They tried to feel me out and see where I stood," he said. "They weren't pushy."

The outreach surprised and impressed Merritt, and he told the staffer that he was unsure whom he would vote for, but that he had concerns about Obama's support of civil unions for same-sex couples, universal health care and abortion rights. Merritt said he is open to further conversations but he has not heard back from the campaign.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company