Who Would Jesus Vote For?

Who Would Jesus Vote For?

The new evangelicals are rejecting the religious right and embracing a broader social gospel.


Longwood, Florida

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.”

Hunter clearly relishes kicking against his parishioners’ limits, intellectually, spiritually and politically. On election Sunday, his sermon is chock-full of reminders that this is not your grandfather’s evangelicalism. He makes a playful break from hidebound literalism: “There were twelve apostles,” he says at one point, interrupting himself to add, “maybe a few more than that. Maybe a hundred.” He distances himself from the feel-good Christianity of prosperity preachers: “A lot of times life doesn’t get better” when a person accepts Christ, he says. “It’s hard. Things become not clearer but more complicated.” And he embraces mainstream culture, informing the folks that he’s agreed to an interview on The Colbert Report. “Anybody can be on a religion channel,” he says. “But when Christians are on the news channel, on the Comedy Channel, we’re out there where God is…. What we’re interested in is taking the Bible out of these rooms.”

Like Purpose-Driven Life author and pastor Rick Warren and the Rev. Bill Hybels, who heads the 12,000-church Willow Creek network, the 59-year-old Hunter has vaulted to national prominence as a frontman for the new wave of evangelicalism–a fast-spreading movement intent on expanding the scope of Christian politics beyond the Falwell/Dobson generation’s obsessions. “You’ve gotta go back to the re-engagement of Christian activism in the ’70s,” Hunter tells me later, to understand how the movement took the form it did. “All of these new things had started happening with the cultural shift and the free sex, and abortion, and taking prayer out of the schools…. There arose some real reaction, and it was really negative, very protectionistic.” The political push for “moral values,” he says, “wasn’t bad. But I think there was a fixation on a very narrow agenda, a very self-centered agenda…. It was a very kind of paranoid language and still is to this day, partly because that’s the easiest way to mobilize people and raise money.” But it’s not the end of the story, Hunter said. “You start tilting toward, ‘Wait a minute. Are we just against stuff, or are we actually for something? Can we really build something good instead of just being against something bad?'”

What this “something good” might add up to, particularly when it comes to politics, is anybody’s guess. At Northland on this election Sunday, the clues are decidedly mixed. When he finally gets to politics, Hunter asks the congregation to consider signing the petition for a statewide referendum on gay marriage. And then, having reverted momentarily to classic Christian-right politics (though not of the red-faced variety), Hunter offers one last reminder of how things are evolving. Go vote on Tuesday, he says. But don’t expect your pastor to tell you how, or for whom. “I don’t care who you vote for,” Hunter says, shrugging theatrically. “Vote your values. Vote what you think Jesus’ values would be.” He laughs. “As close as you can get!”

In the grim days after the 2004 elections, when the religious right was basking in the credit for an unlikely Republican triumph, I asked the Rev. Mel White, a former ghostwriter and filmmaker for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham who now leads the LGBT rights group Soulforce, what progressives and Democrats could do to reach out to evangelical voters. It has to involve a message that emphasizes what the two sides have in common, White said: “We forget that Jesus was intent on liberating us from materialism–while fundamentalists are all about materialism. Jesus’ message was: ‘Sell everything you have; give your money to the poor; take up your cross and follow me.’ The real Jesus calls us to justice and mercy.” But while “the Republican Party has framed all the issues in moral terms, the Democrats have framed the issues mostly in economic terms,” said liberal evangelist Tony Campolo. They haven’t been asking voters to see “moral values” in social terms, rather than those of personal morality.

The social gospel has been taken up in this campaign by Barack Obama and John Edwards, who have spoken often about the deep influence their personal faith has on shaping their progressive politics. But, as White cautioned me then, there is only so much that the Democrats can do about changing evangelicals’ minds and hearts. “Only people of faith can take on people of faith who’ve gone nuts,” White said.

None of the rising generation of evangelical leaders have been more outspoken, and for longer, than Joel Hunter. In 1988, when Northland was still meeting in a skating rink, he became alarmed by Pat Robertson’s campaign for President and penned a warning tract called Right Wing, Wrong Bird, observing rather bracingly that “Christians have this image of just being raving lunatics; and in some respects, it is well-deserved.” Hunter exhorted evangelicals to think for themselves, to look past the culture-war issues that had come to define Christian politics.

At the time, Hunter’s dissenting voice was drowned out by the media-amplified cacophony of the Falwells, Dobsons and Robertsons. But by 2006, when Hunter mounted his most audacious challenge to the religious-right hierarchy, new voices were being heard. There was the Rev. Jim Wallis, whose book tour for God’s Politics turned into a Christian left mini-revival. There was Gregory Boyd, losing 1,000 congregants in his St. Paul megachurch after delivering a series of six “Cross and the Sword” sermons decrying Christian-right imperialism in the frankest terms: “Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric,” Boyd said. “I am sorry to tell you that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and hope of the world is Jesus Christ.” There was former rock guitarist Rob Bell, “revolutionary” leader of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, preaching a Bible-centered social gospel for young evangelicals while poking the Christian right in its tenderest spot: “Religious people killed Jesus because he threatened their system. So what they say is faith is actually fear…it is fear that is rooted in ignorance and, actually, a lack of faith.”

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.

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.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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