What's up with Christian conservatives these days? On one hand, they seem less interested and involved in politics than in the past. Last year, Free Congress Foundation founder Paul Weyrich and former Jerry Falwell spokesman Cal Thomas called for a withdrawal from politics; this year, Gary Bauer fared poorly in the GOP nomination sweepstakes.

On the other hand, Christian conservatives were a force in the Republican primaries, helping George W. Bush secure the nomination. Led by Falwell, movement leaders have promised to mobilize conservative Christians in the fall.

A recent survey of members of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) offers some clues to this puzzle. These Christian conservatives display a principled pragmatism that defies the conventional wisdom. Although NAE members do not represent all Christian conservatives, let alone the "religious right," they are central to a large constituency with an evolving approach to politics.

First, almost of half of the survey respondents believed evangelicals should stay focused on politics, compared to less than one-tenth who felt evangelicals should withdraw. The remaining two-fifths wanted both continued political action in addition to attention to other social ministries.

So, instead of a withdrawal, a more modest reappraisal of politics is underway.

When asked if evangelicals should focus on changing individual hearts or on influencing social institutions, more respondents picked the former than the latter--a traditional position of evangelical churches. However, almost two-thirds opted for changing both individuals and institutions. This response suggests a broad commitment to civic engagement.

Over 90 percent claimed that the 2000 election was "very important" to the future of the country. One-third felt that supporting the "right issues" was more important than "winning" in elections--a view common in the religious right. But two-thirds felt that winning elections was as or more important than issues.

As one might expect, NAE members had solidly conservative views on social issues, such as strong opposition to abortion, which they view as murder, and pornography, which they view as a sin equivalent to sexual misconduct. They also favored school vouchers and government funding of faith-based social services through charitable choice. Most wanted tax cuts and were distrustful of the United Nations.

But there were some surprises as well. The respondents were evenly divided on a constitutional amendment on school prayer and affirmative action. Nearly two-fifths endorsed the "liberal" positions on these controversial issues, opposed to a constitutional amendment on prayer in schools and in favor of affirmative action. Nearly two-fifths felt the federal government had a responsibility to fight poverty.

Two-thirds also rejected the statement "Immigrants harm society by bringing strange customs and beliefs." Indeed, NAE members welcomed Hispanics, Asians and African Americans, many of whom share an evangelical faith.

NAE members' presidential preferences match their issue profile: they supported George W.

Bush over his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination because of Bush's across-the-board social conservatism with a "compassionate" Christian edge. John McCain was a distant second even before his criticism of the religious right. But few respondents backed religious right candidates Gary Bauer or Alan Keyes, and even fewer liked Steve Forbes or Pat Buchanan, both who made strong appeals to Christian conservatives. In fact, the respondents had negative views of Pat Buchanan.

In sum, NAE members support civic engagement, including but not limited to politics. They want to foster traditional morality, but do not share the hard-edged agenda associated with religious right. A principled pragmatism appears to characterize these Christian conservatives in 2000, and perhaps others as well.

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