Who Would Jesus Vote For?
But the point of Redeem the Vote, Brinson says, is not to multiply Republicanism but to disperse evangelicals' political power across the spectrum. "Evangelicals in their voting blocs were supposed to be like sheep," he tells me. His mission, like that of Hunter and Warren and Bell, is to combat that sheeplike behavior. By the time the bus pulls out of Birmingham, about 100 Samford students have registered and solemnly promised to vote. (The day before, the Redeemers made successful stops at two public universities, signing up about 200 new voters at traditionally black Alabama State in Montgomery, and upward of 100 at Auburn University.) What clearly interests Brinson more than the numbers is what happens when he can lure an audience into the bus. Around 11 am, he is perched in the middle of its comfy lounge area, surrounded by a Samford journalism class, doing his darnedest to make them think.
In the course of ten minutes, Brinson plunges into all sorts of uncomfortable territory: gay "lifestyles" ("everybody is a unique creation of God"), abortion ("if a woman has ended up in a situation where she feels compelled to make that decision, we're not going to condemn her for that") and, finally--eyeing his mostly female audience--something that really wakes them up. "There is a strong connection between domestic abuse and the traditional idea of male supremacy and wifely submission to husbands in the church," he says. "The gay community puts more resources into this issue, into fighting domestic abuse and violence, than anybody!" he thundered.
The students seem a bit dumbstruck by it all. Eventually Brinson dials back his voice. "Can I pray with you?" The students nod yes, yes, a little nervously. "Lord," he says rather tenderly, "I just pray that you light them up."
Whatever the short-term partisan effect of efforts like Redeem the Vote, there's no question that the rising generation of evangelicals are looking at politics from very different angles. While they voted overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004, there is good reason to believe that the GOP's edge will soften, perhaps considerably, over time. Among other moderating influences, younger Bible believers see the role of government in a vastly different way from older evangelicals; 60 percent believe that government should work to redistribute wealth more evenly. Their elders generally believed--in sync with Reaganism--that government should be small and people should fend for themselves with the Lord's assistance. When the most popular magazine for young evangelicals, Relevant, asked readers recently to characterize their "political views on social issues (healthcare, poverty)," the largest portion, 44 percent, called themselves "liberal." Asked, "Who do you think was a better president?" 55 percent picked Clinton over Bush. Asked the most crucial question of all, "Who would Jesus vote for?" the most popular answer was a Democrat, Barack Obama, at 29 percent.
"Obama holds the youth card," says Samford student Caroline Bell. She has friends on campus working on his campaign, and that's OK with her, even though she is working for John McCain and the local GOP. "I'm not one to play the Christian card. We want to move away from that, to no longer be thinking, 'Is this the Christian view? Is this the Christian candidate?' It's a whole lot more about policies now."
"It's almost shocking," says Rob Howell, Samford's student government president, "that abortion and gay marriage were so important before, and now those issues have disappeared." Instead, "People are talking about healthcare and social reform. The economy is talked about more than anything. There's a lot of focus on the war and on the morality of our foreign policy. One of the main objections I hear is our insistence on being an occupying force in a foreign country." It all cuts the Democrats' way, he says, except that the perception of the party as "anti-religion" lingers. "It's not as prevalent as it used to be," Howell says, "but it's still there beneath the surface."
The trend away from slavish evangelical loyalty to the GOP clearly constitutes a gathering storm for the party; Republicans stand to lose not only millions of voters but also their "faith-based" edge in grassroots organizing and voter mobilization. Meanwhile, as Time magazine's "Nation" editor Amy Sullivan, author of The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap, has written, "this is a better moment for Democrats to pick up support from religious moderates"--a group that includes 40 percent of evangelicals--"than any other time in the past few decades. That's because evangelicals themselves are the ones who are broadening the faith agenda." This broadening is overdue, when you consider that 40 percent of Bush's evangelical voters in 2004 also considered themselves "liberals" on economic issues. Fewer than half--most of them over 45--say Dobson or Robertson speaks for them politically. In 2008, says Mark Pinsky, "Democrats can peel away 15 to 25 percent of white evangelicals, as Carter and Clinton did."
But in the long run, the direction of evangelical politics is about as clear as the Book of Revelation. Even when former religious-right leaders like Frank Schaeffer endorse Obama, as he did recently on The Huffington Post, they are hardly calling for a mass defection to the Democratic Party. "In 2000, we elected a president who claimed he believed God created the earth," Schaeffer wrote, echoing a widespread view, "and who, as president, put car manufacturers and oil companies' interests ahead of caring for that creation. We elected a prolife Republican Congress that did nothing to actually care for pregnant women and babies. And they took their sincere evangelical followers for granted, and played them for suckers."
Evangelical moderates and progressives are increasingly making one thing clear: they won't be suckered again. Which will make them as much of a challenge, going forward, for Democrats and progressives as for Republicans and conservatives. "We don't think Jesus is a Democrat," cautioned Tony Campolo, "any more than we think he's a Republican."