Three thoughts on the NYT piece entitled “The Evangelical Crackup”.
1. The evangelical political leadership we’ve known for the past 20 years is headed out.
The founding generation of leaders like Falwell and Dobson, who first guided evangelicals into Republican politics 30 years ago, is passing from the scene. Falwell died in the spring. Paul Weyrich, 65, the indefatigable organizer who helped build Falwell’s Moral Majority and much of the rest of the movement, is confined to a wheelchair after losing his legs because of complications from a fall. Dobson, who is 71 and still vigorous, is already planning for a succession at Focus on the Family; it is expected to tack toward the less political family advice that is its bread and butter.
The engineers of the momentous 1980s takeover that expunged political and theological moderates from the Southern Baptist Convention are retiring or dying off, too. And in September, when I called a spokesman for the ailing Presbyterian televangelist D. James Kennedy, another pillar of the Christian conservative movement, I learned that Kennedy had “gone home to the Lord” at 2 a.m. that morning.
Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.
Yes, the existing leaders – Dobson, Land, Perkins in particular – still have the power to convene Christian conservatives but their power among the rank-and-file evangelicals is ebbing.
For under-25 evangelicals, men and women who have grown up on the Internet and IM and My Space and YouTube, these men hold little, if any, power. They are at best the people their parents listened to and they are at worst, those people their parents listened to.
And while Rick Warren is obviously the most powerful pastor in the country, it isn’t actually clear who will fill the roles Dobson and co. once played. It may be that evangelicals turn toward more local influences defined by their spirituality and not their politics.
2. While evangelical identification with the Republican party is down that doesn’t mean they will go to the Dems.
Today the president’s support among evangelicals, still among his most loyal constituents, has crumbled. Once close to 90 percent, the president’s approval rating among white evangelicals has fallen to a recent low below 45 percent, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. White evangelicals under 30 — the future of the church — were once Bush’s biggest fans; now they are less supportive than their elders. And the dissatisfaction extends beyond Bush. For the first time in many years, white evangelical identification with the Republican Party has dipped below 50 percent, with the sharpest falloff again among the young, according to John C. Green, a senior fellow at Pew and an expert on religion and politics. (The defectors by and large say they’ve become independents, not Democrats, according to the polls.)
I have been saying for the last year and see no reason to stop saying that the change that is occurring among evangelicals is most fundamentally a spiritual shift. Evangelicals have been part of the Great Sellout for the last eight years – worshipping at the altar of George W. Bush. They have seen what happens when Jesus is sold out for politics. I don’t see them rushing back anytime soon.
3. The evangelical war is coming.
In the past, Hybels has scrupulously avoided criticizing conservative Christian political figures like Falwell or Dobson. But in my talk with him, he argued that the leaders of the conservative Christian political movement had lost touch with their base. “The Indians are saying to the chiefs, ‘We are interested in more than your two or three issues,’ ” Hybels said. “We are interested in the poor, in racial reconciliation, in global poverty and AIDS, in the plight of women in the developing world.”
He brought up the Rev. Jim Wallis, the lonely voice of the tiny evangelical left. Wallis has long argued that secular progressives could make common cause with theologically conservative Christians. “What Jim has been talking about is coming to fruition,” Hybels said.
Conservative Christian leaders in Washington acknowledge a “leftward drift” among evangelicals, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and the movement’s chief advocate in Washington. He told me he believed that Hybels and many of his admirers had, in effect, fallen away from orthodox evangelical theology. Perkins compared the phenomenon to the century-old division in American Protestantism between the liberal mainline and the orthodox evangelical churches. “It is almost like another split coming within the evangelicals,” he said.
There are those on the right for whom a conservative political ideology represent the fifth Gospel of the New Testament. Over the next year expect them to make increasingly spiritual arguments to justify their politics – attempting to persuade those who have left the Republican party and conservative politics to come back into the camp because it is the “Jesus way.” And expect many conservative and moderate pastors, theologians, and lay people to become ever more aggressive in countering that argument.