Losing Evangelicals

11.3.2006 | Caroline Mello | National Affairs | 2 Comments

It’s 2004, and I’m sitting in a crowded auditorium with hundreds of fellow Christians on the Sunday before the election. After an hour of singing and hand-raising, I’m looking forward to the pastor talking for a while.

His sermon starts innocently enough, with Matthew 22:34, where Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God. He starts listing the ways to love God; it’s a long list, culminating with voting, which I don’t recall Jesus ever mentioning.

And not just voting, but which issues to vote on.

It’s a conservative checklist: banning gay marriage, ending legal abortion and keeping our nation secure. Just in case that’s not clear enough: “We all know only one candidate in this race holds our values. I don’t even have to say his name.” The audience laughs, people nod.

Two years later, I doubt he’s offering the same sermon. After six years of a fellow evangelical in the White House, many no longer take it as a given that the Republican Party and its candidates are in step with Christian values. Mark Foley’s dalliances with pages may be the shorthand for the general discontent, but it’s Jack Abramoff, Bob Ney and Tom Delay, too.

As evangelicals have grown in power within the Republican Party, it’s become easy to forget how recently they arrived there—it wasn’t until Roe v. Wade that the evangelical troops start turning out at the polls in numbers. While that passion may still rally the troops in 2008, gerrymandered districts mean the few competitive races push candidates toward the center, and away from the true believers.

In the meantime, years in power have done to Republicans what power always does—corrupts.  And now it’s alienating the evangelicals who helped bring the party to power, and it’s no sure thing that they’ll turn out in mass (no pun intended) for the Republicans this year.

With their core social issues not central to this year’s elections, evangelicals are left to focus on a sexual scandal that plays into still-common anti-Catholic sentiments. As easy it may be for elites on the coasts to dismiss, many evangelicals take seriously the sentiments of institutions like Bob Jones University: “love the practicing Catholic and earnestly desire to see him accept the Christ of the Cross, leave the false system that has enslaved his soul, and enjoy the freedom of sins forgiven that is available for any of us in Christ alone.”

Past that, the sloppy cover-up and excuse-making that followed the publishing of the Foley emails infuriated in its own right—evangelicals aren’t interested in hearing that “Democrats do it too.”

The disappointment extends to the White House. Take Tempting Faith—An Inside Story of Politcal Seduction, evangelical Christian David Kuo’s account of his political seduction and ultimate disillusionment while serving as deputy director for the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Kuo came in ready for deeds, and soon discovered that his office was meant to be mostly a symbolic sop. Not good enough.

In the minds of evangelicals, they have been leaning too hard on politics as a means to further their values, morals and beliefs. Evangelicals are ready to turn to their churches to promote their values and distance themselves from political activism.

And if Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is the 2008 Republican nominee, matters will worsen. Expect the many evangelicals with anti-Mormon feelings to sit the 2008 race out, believing that the party they used to identify with is increasingly becoming less like them.

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