Who Would Jesus Vote For?
Hunter took a flying leap of faith in 2006, when he signed on to the unlikely challenge of reviving the debt-plagued, internally divided Christian Coalition. The episode made headlines when he resigned before officially assuming the post. He says he made clear his intention to refocus the coalition toward "compassion issues," but once rank-and-file coalition stalwarts got wind of Hunter's blunt opinions about religious-right excesses, his opposition to the death penalty and support for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, his backing withered. Hunter now wonders, "Man, what was I thinking?" But, he says, "I was curious as to whether or not any of the traditional hard-right organizations could really expand the agenda."
He got his answer. But the story made great copy, and it turned Hunter into a symbol of the generational clash in evangelical politics. In 2007 the National Association of Evangelicals asked him to star in a thirty-second "Creation Care" commercial promoting its Evangelical Climate Initiative. "Did you know that evangelical leaders are telling us that global warming must be stopped because it will bring more devastating floods, droughts and disease?" Hunter asks in the spot. It sounded meek enough, but it set off a major fuss among traditionalists--Dobson, Gary Bauer et al.--who sent the NAE a strongly worded letter of objection, clearly fearing an ignominious retreat toward the gentle social gospel of mainline Protestantism. Hunter, who'd gotten death threats after publicly supporting an independent Palestine, was still surprised at the blowback against Creation Care. "It was, 'You're un-American. You hate America because you believe America ought to do things.'"
Which is precisely the point of the new politics, he told me the week before the Florida primaries: doing things. Redeem the Vote, an evangelical and ostensibly nonpartisan effort to register young voters, had come to Seminole County in the form of a bus full of registration forms, Cokes and doughnuts, and Hunter was holding forth in the breezy chill outside with some college-aged kids from Northland. There is now, Hunter said, "this whole younger generation of evangelicals who say, 'You know? I'm not so sure that I'm mad at anybody. But I care about the earth. I care about poor people. I care about those who have been exploited by the system. So I don't care what's conservative or liberal; I care about getting stuff done.'"
Jeremiah Shaw, a student at nearby Rollins College, comes as near as anybody to exemplifying that generation. He's a registered independent and still undecided about a candidate even after Hunter's seminar on the presidential candidates the week before. (The main topic, he said, was Obama.) An international affairs major, Shaw said he's "heavily involved in Africa, working with villages with orphaned children." When I asked him about "moral issues"--like the controversy over prochoice Obama speaking at Rick Warren's conference on global AIDS--Shaw pshawed. "I don't find that controversial, actually. The more people are educated about the pandemic, the better off we are."
Under-30 evangelicals like Shaw hold the keys to a new political kingdom. They are less likely to be weekly churchgoers, less likely to be biblical literalists and they believe that the government should do more to protect the environment. On the core culture-war issue of gay marriage, they increasingly stray from the fold, with fewer than half favoring a gay-marriage ban. While they remain overwhelmingly antiabortion, a large majority would like a civil cease-fire in the abortion wars. And they are all too vividly aware of the unflattering reputation given to the name "Christian" by many of their evangelical elders. When I asked Shaw if people ever assume he's going to be narrow-minded and hateful when they find out he's a Christian, he laughed. "All the time, man. And I always find myself kind of saying, 'I'm a Christian, but...' I try to model my life on Jesus' life, not on that other kind of Christianity. And I'm going to try and vote the same way." All of which would have made his pastor proud. Except that Hunter was busy at the moment, across the street at the elections office, casting an early vote for Huckabee.
For students at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, on the brisk, blowy Friday morning before Super Tuesday, there is no missing the Redeem the Vote bus. Pumping Christian rock from exterior speakers, it has parked smack dab in front of the campus union. All morning students pass by, eyeing the spectacle somewhat suspiciously as local TV cameras and a reporter from Sweden mill around on the sidewalk and chat with Redeem the Vote's three-person staff. When they venture close, the students are seized upon by a lanky, balding, high-octane fellow asking rapid-fire questions: "Are you registered? Are you planning to vote? Good. Absentee? Well, look, you're going to need to know what the law is for absentee voting in the state where you're from. We have all kinds of information inside the bus..."
With his wife, Pam, Randy Brinson, a successful gastroenterologist in Montgomery, founded Redeem the Vote in 2003. This vigorous, seat-of-the-pants push to register young voters became an unlikely smash in 2004, with estimates of newly Redeemed voters ranging from 78,000 to nearly 100,000. The effort was boosted by PSAs featuring Passion of the Christ star Jim Caviezel, which aired for free on some 2,500 Christian radio stations and flashed on Jumbotrons at Christian concerts and festivals. "USA Today called us the most influential group in the 2004 elections," Brinson says. This year, the bus--a new twist--has pulled onto twenty college campuses and countless church parking lots during early primaries. In Iowa, Redeem the Vote set up tables at rallies for both Democratic and Republican candidates, while offering the Brinsons' e-mail database--which they claim is to be the largest in the country--to candidates of both parties. The only one to make extensive use of the database, which US News & World Report deemed "God's black book," was Huckabee, who won the state. The only candidate besides the Arkansan to accept Redeem the Vote's invitation to pray was Senator Obama, the other winner there. The group was credited with helping increase voter turnout among "faith voters" and under-30s.
But who is Redeem the Vote bringing to caucuses and primaries? Jeff Sharlet, an editor of therevealer.org, which reviews religion and the press, has called it a "thinly-veiled GOP vote machine." After all, with the focus on Christian colleges and concerts, those being reached are going to come, overwhelmingly, from Republican homes. But Brinson insists there's nothing partisan in Redeem the Vote's pitch. "Just because we're from the faith community, we're not antagonistic toward the Democratic Party," he says. "And just because we're interested in issues like healthcare and poverty, we're also not hostile to the Republican Party."
This even-handedness sounds like a bit of a stretch to some, especially given that Brinson is chair of the Christian Coalition of Alabama (much weakened after financial scandals and a mass right-wing defection, but hardly "nonpartisan"). Sharlet also noted that the effort in 2004 was heavily staffed by students of the religious-right Patrick Henry College and that the Redeem the Vote board--of which Huckabee was briefly chair before he ran for President--is overwhelmingly Republican despite the inclusion of evangelical Democrats. Though this year's edition includes at least one Democratic staffer, with whom I spoke, Redeem the Vote's "partners" still include Fox News and Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.