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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.

He has also been watching from afar as Obama's camp has continued to try to pull along the willing in other ways. Saturday, the campaign will roll out a "Believers for Barack" Web site to blog about Obama and for visitors to volunteer for service projects.

McCain's campaign is quietly fighting back. Staffers are visiting churches and telling people that though Obama speaks freely about his faith, he "takes extreme positions on certain issues that are not in sync with the evangelical population," said Marlys Popma, who oversees evangelical outreach for McCain. She acknowledged that a lot of evangelicals are undecided because of Obama's extensive faith outreach, but she said that when they hear McCain's message and understand Obama's liberal views, they will support the Republican.

This week, Popma's team will add pages to McCain's Web site targeting evangelicals, emphasizing his desire to see the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling overturned, his conservative views on same-sex marriage, and his plan to appoint conservative justices. An interactive section on the site targeting young evangelicals will outline McCain's plans to address climate change and world poverty.

Merritt has not been in touch with the McCain campaign, and he said it seems that the senator from Arizona is uncomfortable talking about his faith and is seeking endorsements from the evangelical old guard. He calls McCain's acceptance, then repudiation, of the Rev. John Hagee's endorsement "strange." Hagee angered church leaders by making controversial comments about Catholicism.

"McCain has really used the old-school tactics of trying to snag some of those big evangelical leaders who oftentimes don't represent young evangelicals," Merritt said.

A Page From the Bible

The environment was the first issue that Merritt cared about passionately that did not fit his traditional Republican mind-set. He remembers sitting in a class on systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina last year and his professor saying: "When we destroy God's creation, we are destroying God's revelation. It's similar to tearing a page out of the Bible."

For a Southern Baptist, the Bible is the infallible, literal word of God, and that stuck with Merritt.

"I could feel God making my heart sensitive," he recalls.

Merritt worries about the state of the country in a two-war, declining-dollar, post-Sept. 11 world. He has heard from Baptist missionaries who are having a hard time sharing the Gospel overseas, where opinions of the United States are so low. He is concerned about the loss of life in Iraq and the toll it is taking on families, and he is rethinking his support of the war. He recently persuaded his mom to start recycling, and he carries canvas shopping bags in his trunk so he will not add to landfills by using plastic ones.

Donnie McDaniel, a friend of Merritt's who is studying theology and the environment in a doctoral program at Southeastern, voted for Bush four years ago but said that neither of this year's candidates is a perfect fit. He is 32, grew up attending a Wesleyan holiness church in South Carolina and became a Southern Baptist when he married the daughter of a missionary.

"It's probably going to be a decision I won't make until I walk into the booth that day," he said of his choice of candidates. "There's no doubt that Barack Obama uses Christian language. He's getting attention, but for the most part, I'm theologically conservative and . . . conservative on social issues," McDaniel said. "But I look at John McCain, and he doesn't really represent me either. I have a theological commitment to nonviolence, too. Truly, if you are an evangelical Christian, no political party should be able to fully represent you because you are doing something counter-cultural."

Merritt has also been exposed to leaders of the "emerging church," a youth-driven Christian movement that has grown through an online network and encourages small meetings in homes, bars and coffee shops. Merritt attended an event recently and found enlightening what one organizer called an "ironic hipster revival and book reading." Its leaders tend to be politically liberal, and Merritt was provoked by questions they posed, such as "How did the Gospel become married to the American political system?"

Competing Interests

Merritt weighs less esoteric questions as overseer of the College & Single Life ministry at his father's Cross Pointe Church, which has 1,750 attendees each Sunday. The young adults meet in a room decorated like an urban loft, with dim lighting, brown leather couches and patches of wallpaper that look like exposed brick. One recent Sunday, Merritt spoke on being judgmental.

"The church has a bad reputation for being judgmental, worrying more about what people wear to church than the fact that they are coming to church," he earnestly told the group of about 20.

The students agree, and they say some of it has to do with a politicizing of their religion. They feel the tension of their competing interests.

"I went to school with a lot of agnostic people and after Bush, they were like 'no' " to religion, said Brittany Kelley, 22, who recently graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design. She is leaning toward McCain because she shares his economic views and is afraid that Obama will raise taxes. But in a lowered voice she said she does not feel the way some of the other young evangelicals do when it comes to all social issues.

"I have a lot of friends who are homosexual, and if they wanted to get married, that's okay," Kelley said. "They are not going to stop it because it is illegal."

For Merritt, the decision comes down to combining the values his father taught him and those he has discovered along the way. The more he talks about McCain and Obama, the clearer it becomes that he is dissatisfied with both. In a freelance column published recently, he wrote: "If Democrats begin championing the sanctity of human life and traditional marriage, they may capture some of the powerful Christian voting bloc; if Republicans can develop an aggressive platform on issues like poverty and the environment, they can reverse the erosion of their evangelical base."

Merritt is not convinced that either party will go far enough to win him over in this election.

"We've become such an idealistic generation where our parents were so pragmatic," he said. "I'm not ruling out third-party candidates."

Polling editor Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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