We seem to have arrived at another of those bizarre and somewhat surreal moments when the media have “rediscovered” America’s evangelicals. Everyone from Hollywood and the publishing industry to the New York Times and PBS is all atwitter about this finding, but the real question is whether or not John Kerry and the Democratic Party will also take notice and stop conceding the evangelical vote to the Republicans. The outcome of the election could very well hang in the balance.
The last time the media deigned to notice evangelicalism was during the televangelist scandals of the mid-1980s and, a decade before that, the announcement by a former governor of Georgia and long-shot candidate for President that he was a “born-again Christian,” a declaration that sent journalists scurrying for their Rolodexes. How a movement that, according to a 2002 Gallup poll, encompasses 46 percent of the population could have gone “missing” for so long is another question, but the catalyst for this latest discovery seems to be a confluence of factors: the unexpected popularity of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which lured millions of evangelicals (who historically have been suspicious of both Hollywood and Roman Catholicism) to the theaters; the sales of the Left Behind series of novels (over 62 million and counting), which depict life on earth during the apocalypse predicted in the Book of Revelation; and the impending presidential election, in which evangelicals may once again play a crucial role, just as they did in 1980, 1984 and 2000.
The conventional wisdom is that evangelicals–whose ranks include fundamentalists, pentecostals, charismatics and holiness people–will turn out in large numbers for George W. Bush, whom many evangelicals regard as one of their own. That may well be the case, and it is true that evangelicals have emerged in recent years as the GOP’s most reliable constituency, serving the same role that organized labor once played for the Democrats. Evangelicals provided 40 percent of Bush’s vote in 2000. But evangelicalism is a diverse and variegated movement, one that includes many African-Americans and a growing number of Hispanics. The evangelical vote for Bush in November, therefore, is not an inevitability; it may have less to do with ideological affinities with the Republicans than with indifference on the part of the Democrats.
Evangelicalism includes many evangelicals who are concerned more about social justice than economic self-aggrandizement. They take seriously Jesus’ words about “blessed are the peacemakers,” and they are appalled by the atrocities in Iraq. A minority? Perhaps, but Kerry’s election prospects may well hinge on his ability to pry some evangelical votes away from Bush, just as Bill Clinton did in 1992 and 1996. If Kerry and the Democrats want to make a play for the evangelical vote, I suggest the following:
First, attend an evangelical church from time to time, but follow the example of Clinton, not Howard Dean. The former governor of Vermont, you’ll recall, clumsily declared that Job was his favorite New Testament book (Job is in the Hebrew Bible), and he raised his hands, pentecostal-style, during congregational singing in an evangelical church. Evangelicals can spot a phony at forty paces, so the best advice for Kerry, a Roman Catholic, is to be attentive and respectful without “going native.” Yes, amid the Lewinsky scandal, many evangelicals came to regard Clinton as a phony, too, but fair-minded evangelicals also recognized a core of genuine piety. Despite his shortcomings, Clinton, having grown up in the Bible Belt, knew how to behave in church.