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.
Second, affirm the First Amendment for what it is: the best friend religion in America has ever had. Religious life has flourished in this country precisely because the government has (for the most part, at least) stayed out of the religion business. Ever since George Gallup began asking the question during World War II, around 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God or a Supreme Being, a number almost double that of other Western nations. With its provision for disestablishment, the First Amendment set up a free market of religion, where religious entrepreneurs (to extend the metaphor) compete with one another for popular followings and, in so doing, insure a salubrious religious culture. Attempts to undermine the separation of church and state–with prayer in public schools, faith-based initiatives, school vouchers or posting the Decalogue in public places–ultimately undermine the vitality of religious life in America by making religious expression compulsory.
Third, reiterate your support for choice while acknowledging, at the same time (to the extent you believe it to be the case), that abortion itself is regrettable. Although this position sounds like heresy to many Democrats, the only two successful Democratic candidates for president since the Roe decision held similar views. In 1976 Jimmy Carter declared that although he was “personally opposed” to abortion, he did not want to make it illegal. Despite enormous pressure from the Catholic bishops toward the close of the campaign–sound familiar?–Carter held his ground. Clinton frequently said he wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare.”
A statement like, “I have no interest in making abortion illegal; I want to make it unthinkable,” captures the proper distinction between abortion as a legal issue and abortion as a moral issue. Regarding the former, the rights of individual privacy preclude a legal ban on abortion; besides, the state issues a legal certificate at birth, not at conception. Americans have to be reminded, however, that abortion is a choice with moral repercussions, albeit a choice to be made by the individual and her conscience, not by the state. As for making abortion “rare” or “unthinkable,” a Kerry administration could do more to discourage abortion than the five Republican administrations since Roe by undertaking a campaign to encourage contraception and adoption, similar to campaigns directed against smoking or alcohol and spousal abuse. A pledge to do so would get the attention of evangelical voters. (It might also quiet the Catholic bishops somewhat, whose hypocrisy, in light of the pedophilia scandals, apparently knows no bounds.)
Finally, remind evangelicals of their heritage. Evangelicals in the nineteenth century set the political and social agenda for the nation. They were in the vanguard of abolitionism, the temperance movement (then considered a progressive cause), prison reform, education and women’s rights. Almost invariably, they took up the cause of those on the margins of society. Sadly, the religious right, with its opposition to women’s rights and civil rights and its support for tax cuts for the affluent, has defaulted on the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activism.
Will evangelicals flock to the Democratic Party in large numbers this fall? No, probably not. The cant of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson (not to mention Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) has been substantial and, to this point, unrefuted. It has taken a toll. Still, I’m willing to bet that there are plenty of evangelicals who, if presented with a thoughtful alternative to the red-meat rhetoric of the religious right, might be willing to consider an alternative. It’s a wager that Kerry and the Democrats should make as well.