Who Would Jesus Vote For?
On the late-January Sunday before this state's decisive Republican primary, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee got praised and blessed and prayed over during morning services at one of the biggest conservative megachurches in the political swing region of Central Florida, Orlando's 14,000-member First Baptist. In a time when the much-ballyhooed evangelical political machine shows unmistakable signs of flying apart and scattering in uncertain directions, here was a momentary return to the old order. Here was Pastor David Uth doing just what an evangelical megaminister is supposed to do--anointing the nearest thing to a theocratic candidate as the more or less official choice of his church, while simultaneously sending the not so subtle signal that has issued forth from the nation's pulpits for three decades now: Christians vote Republican.
But while Uth was reinforcing that well-worn commandment, his encomium of Huckabee had something fresh about it. Rather than emphasize the governor's Dark Age convictions on culture-war issues, or his wild-eyed pledge to amend the Constitution in the Lord's image, Uth told a story dating from the civil rights era. His father had tried to integrate his Baptist flock in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and, to make a long story short, the Uths got run out of town by the Klan. But the elder Pastor Uth was followed in the Pine Bluff pulpit by a young Mike Huckabee, who successfully "broke the race barrier." His admiration for the candidate, Uth said, stems from their common conviction that if the church "isn't for everybody, it isn't for anybody."
If this wasn't exactly revolutionary talk--and if Huckabee hadn't exactly run the kind of inclusive campaign Uth's anecdote suggests--the change in tone is characteristic of the sharp, surprising turn evangelical politics is taking. Even if you're endorsing Huckabee, it seems, you're duty-bound in 2008 to find a broad-minded rationale for doing it.
Just four years ago, when unprecedented turnout by born-again "values voters" was credited with ensuring George W. Bush's re-election, the political face of evangelicalism was Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, screeching red-faced to football-sized crowds about gay marriage as "the Waterloo," "Gettysburg" and a force that "will destroy the earth." Now the Moral Majority generation of Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Phyllis Schlafly, the folks who fired up politically apathetic born-again Christians in the 1970s by declaring war on public schools, abortion rights, gay rights and "liberalism," has lost its grip on the movement--partly by refusing to expand their agendas to suit a rising generation of younger evangelicals who care more about global warming than winning elections for corporate Republicans, more about combating poverty than denouncing homosexuality. With one-quarter of Americans identifying themselves as evangelicals--about 4 percent more than those who say they're mainline Protestants--the political stakes could hardly be higher. But the political upshot could hardly be murkier.
Twenty miles up the road, deep in the suburbs of Seminole County, a more thoroughgoing departure from Moral Majority-style politics is on display that same Sunday at Northland, Central Florida's cutting-edge megachurch. More than 12,000 folks--mostly middle-class, mostly white--praise Him here at four elaborately choreographed services each weekend. They're drawn not only by the rock-concert atmospherics and full-service approach (preschool, childcare, coffee bar) but also by the genial magnetism and post-religious-right message of the Rev. Joel Hunter.
And what, pray tell, does "post-religious-right" mean, exactly? In Northland's case, on this critical political Sunday, it means that almost nothing is said about politics. During his opening announcements, director of student ministries Sean Cooper, a lanky 34-year-old in slim-fitting prewashed jeans, encourages first-time voters to "believe in the process that God has called this country to." That's as political as it gets. Cooper segues into the four-piece house band, which ably thumps its way through two trippy tunes of U2-inspired praise rock, both tied to Hunter's equally trippy theme for the day: "Beautiful Collision." The concept comes from liberal theologian N.T. Wright, who observed that the purpose of Jesus' work was to bring heaven to earth, resulting in inevitable "explosions." Materializing onstage, Hunter kicks off his message by proclaiming: "They say at the birth of the universe, there was a big bang. I can believe it!"
It's impossible to imagine Jerry Falwell opening an election week sermon quite like this--and with an implicit embrace of a scientific fundamental, for goodness' sakes. But, then, Hunter's chief aim is to crack open the closed minds of his fellow conservatives. "He's the only evangelical pastor I've ever heard call on his congregation to donate during an NPR pledge drive," says Mark Pinsky, the Orlando Sentinel's religion writer, who has followed Hunter's ascendancy for more than a decade. "Certainly the only one who references Foreign Affairs in his sermons--I mean, I don't read Foreign Affairs."