Much ink has been spilt over the various moderate and sometimes even progressive trends in the world of evangelicalism. And even while writing about "faith" remains strongly in fashion, I remain of the view, politically speaking, that there is much less in these trends than meets the eye. At least so far.
As much as we may welcome evangelicals young and old who have come to, or who have always shared, concerns that are far wider than those of the litums tests of the religious right, and reject the conflation of one's views on homosexuality and abortion with Christianity itself -- too many folks have jumped to premature conclusions on these things. And as Chip Berlet reminded us last summer, it is just plain wrong to sacrifice the human and civil rights of women and LGBT people in the pursuit of seemingly available political constituencies.
New York Times reporter Neela Banerjee in an article titled Taking Their Faith, but Not Their Politics, to the People offers some useful perspective. Berlet's point aside, wishful thinkers and gullible punditocrats may have jumped the gun (or jumped the poll) on whether the changes in attitudes among some conservative evangelicals will affect their voting behavior.
About 17 percent of the nation's 55 million adult evangelicals are between the ages of 18 and 29, and many are troubled by the methods of the religious right and its close ties to the Republican Party.
In a January 2007 survey of 1,000 young people for the book "Unchristian," one of its authors, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, which studies Christian trends, found that 47 percent of born-again Christians ages 40 and under believed that "the political efforts of conservative Christians" posed a problem for America.
None of that means younger evangelicals have abandoned the core tenets of their faith, including a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus and the literal truth of the Bible. They think abortion and homosexuality are sins.
And so far, there is no clear evidence that supporting a broader social agenda has led young evangelicals to defect from the Republican Party in great numbers, as many liberals have predicted.
Liberal evangelicals say the difference in approach and priorities among younger evangelicals signals a shift in their political allegiances, too. Surveys, so far, give a murkier picture.
A report last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicated that in 2001, 55 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 identified themselves as Republican, far more than in the broader population. In 2007, 40 percent did. But a more recent Pew poll only of registered voters found that 60 percent of young white evangelicals identified themselves as Republican or leaning Republican, the same as all white evangelicals.
"This is the most pro-life generation I've seen," said John Mark Reynolds, professor of philosophy at the evangelical Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. "I don't have any evidence that being green is going to trump pro-life issues in the voting booth."
Indeed, as liberals and Democrats drool over the prospects of white evangelicals coming over, evidence is scant that they will do so. More to the point, John McCain is a candidate tailor-made for the broader agenda conservative evangelical who favors traditional marriage and is prolife, but is not obcessed. Whatever one may think of the merits of McCain's general views, he is far, far from cookie cutter conservativism on such matters as say, immigration and global warming in particular and the environment in general.
That said, top of the ticket aside, it is shaping up as a good year for liberals and Democrats. And no doubt many relative conservatives, religious and otherwise, will come over out of revulsion over the debacle of the Bush years. But how many stay, and for how long, are different questions.
Those who would sacrifice or even downplay core values are unlikely to be trusted by their newfound evangelical friends.
For good reason.
[Crossposted from Talk to Action