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By Jennifer Koons
Religion News Service

Washington — Bolstered by polls showing that a growing number of young evangelicals are turning away from the Republican Party, Democrats are on a campaign to reach them where they’re at — in school.
Republicans lost votes across all age groups in the 2006 midterm elections,but it was young voters who moved the furthest from the GOP.
According to the Pew Research Center survey in February, support for Democratic candidates jumped from 16 percent to 26 percent among white evangelicals under 30 between the 2004 and 2006 elections.
“Many people have become disillusioned by President Bush, but younger evangelicals have gone from being very enthusiastic supporters of the president to being markedly less so and their party IDs have also switched,” said John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The turn of events presents an opening for Democrats to make inroads among this younger generation of voters, whose parents and grandparents have traditionally aligned themselves with the GOP.
“It’s possible that this weakening will give Democrats a big opportunity and that they’ll make good on that opportunity at least for the purposes of 2008 to persuade a larger number of young evangelicals to vote for their nominees,” said Green.
The Republican Party and conservative-leaning organizations do not intend to cede potential voters without a fight.
“Poverty, immigration and the environment are not issues that are isolated to one party or the other. It’s a matter of how they feel those issues should be dealt with and who’s talking about them,” said Bethanie Swendsen of the Washington-based Family Research Council.
Swendsen said the Family Research Council, a leading conservative Christian research and advocacy group often considered the “Washington embassy” of James Dobson’s politically powerful Focus on the Family, is continuing its efforts to engage young evangelicals. That includes yearly summer internships in Washington and a conference in October where conservative college students will have the opportunity to talk politics.
“It’s really good that young people are involved and they’re engaged in the next elections and they understand that their votes count, and we’re here to help them,” Swendsen said.
Democrats are working to attract college students in particular by emphasizing similarities between religious and left-leaning values.
In March, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean traveled to Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa., to talk to students and answer their questions about the DNC’s effort to reach out to religious voters.
DNC spokeswoman Amaya Smith said that’s just one example of how the party is attempting to appeal to religious voters. The DNC has also created a faith advisory council and consulted with the organizers of Redeem the Vote, a non-partisan evangelical organization that claims to have registered 78,000 young evangelicals to vote in the 2004 election.
The DNC is also working with the College Democrats of America’s faith caucus on outreach.
“We are broadening the discussion,” said Melissa Roberts, a junior at Jesuit-run Boston College and chair of the College Democrats faith caucus. “People are realizing we can define our political beliefs by more than two issues. We can reach beyond abortion and gay marriage.”
Emily Holmes, a senior at Bethel University, an evangelical school in Arden Hills, Minn., said a desire to expand the political discussion led her to form the evangelical school’s first College Democrats club three years ago. Since then, she said, she has observed a change in
her classmates’ political interest.
“Within the past three years, I’ve noticed a subtle change in our campus dynamics,” Holmes said. “We are a Christian school and social justice tends to be the core of a lot of what we care about. It’s just the way we want to go about taking care of it is what really separates the political parties.”
At Calvin College, a moderate evangelical school in the Republican stronghold of Grand Rapids, Mich., there is no student Democratic organization,but several clubs have been formed to address issues traditionally associated with the left.
Andrew Van Stee co-chairs his school’s social justice committee, a student-run organization focused on global poverty, with an emphasis on fair trade and labor practices.
“As young evangelicals, we don’t really have a home at the moment,”
Van Stee said. “We’re not entirely in either camp. We’ve got a broad agenda that focuses on issues that have traditionally been adopted by Republicans but also Democrats.”
A recent Pew survey found the younger generation of evangelicals more likely than their parents to champion environmental causes.
And although young evangelicals generally oppose abortion, their approach differs from their elders, polls show.
Younger evangelicals tend to believe that improving health care, rather than outlawing abortion, is the appropriate Christian response, according to Tony Campolo, a sociology professor at Eastern University and a member of the DNC’s faith advisory council.
“Students see how these issues can be resolved in economic terms,”
Campolo said. “We need to raise the minimum wage, make sure daycare is available and have to make sure health care and prenatal care are provided.”
“We feel that if the federal government puts money into these programs, the rate of abortions in this country could be cut dramatically,” he said.
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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