Fire and brimstone evangelicalism has simmered down into a broader movement of cooler approaches.
Yet much of what has been said about the expanded political agenda and softer tone of evangelical Christians has missed the point, say observers of the Christian right.
“Every time a Democrat gets elected they say: ‘That’s the end of the Christian conservatives. They’re gone,’ ” said D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center vice president Michael Cromartie. “But they’re not. Broadening their agenda doesn’t mean they are suddenly liberal Democrats.”
And evangelicals, Cromartie said, are not abandoning their core issues: traditional marriage and sanctity of life. “Climate change does not trump pro-life issues.”
Although the rhetoric is gentler, the politics are the same. The money is going to lobby for the same things. The basic voting structure was largely unchanged in 2008, pollsters say.
“We want to be relevant to a new generation, but we plan to stay strong on the pillars Dr. James Dobson built at Focus on the Family,” said Tom Minnery, the ministry’s senior vice president of government and public policy.
President Barack Obama’s modest gains among white Christian groups over previous Democratic presidential candidates helped put him in the White House. Yet they didn’t represent any real shift in the faith-based vote, Anna Greenberg, senior vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, said in her post-election analysis.
There was essentially no change in the vote of evangelicals who regularly attend church, and just a couple of percentage points gained, compared with 2004, among less observant evangelicals.
A majority of evangelicals, who accounted for 26 percent of the U.S. adult population in 2008, stands with the Christian right.
While 37 percent of Americans describe themselves as politically conservative, 52 percent of evangelicals do so, according to the 2008 U.S. Religious
Jen Kuzik, 41, holds a sign as she prays on the west steps of the Capitol before the March for Life on Friday. Evangelicals still hold strong anti-abortion views. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post )
Landscape Survey of more than 35,000 Americans commissioned by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
And among evangelicals who regularly attend church, the percentage of political conservatives rises to 61 percent.
Still, Greenberg has reported there is evidence the basic American voting structure in place for more than 20 years could change because the most solidly Republican group — white evangelical Christians — appears to be growing more independent.
She cited a late-2008 survey, from Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly and the United Nations Foundation, which asked young white evangelicals, ages 18 to 29, if they had “warm, favorable feelings” toward the Republican Party. Only 43 percent said they did, compared with 64 percent of white evangelicals age 30 and older.
The question, she said, is whether they’ll become more conservative as they grow older.
While the majority of the evangelical movement is as socially conservative as ever, it is not as strident, said University of Akron professor John C. Green, a longtime observer of the Christian right.
The next generation of evangelical leaders has less stern figureheads, such as megachurch pastor and mega-selling author Rick Warren. He has said he is not a member of the religious right and is downright reluctant to be seen as a culture warrior, even though he opposes gay marriage and abortion on demand.
Jim Daly, the 48-year-old head of Focus on the Family media ministry, is seen inside the conservative Christian organization as less authoritarian and more approachable than his predecessor, the 73-year- old Dobson.
Outside the organization, Cromartie said, Daly is seen as more affable and willing to seek common ground.
“As (Focus on the Family) tries to reach the next generation of young families, we’re trying to use words that work,” Minnery said.
Yet younger evangelicals are even more opposed to abortion on demand than their parents, both Minnery and Cromartie say, and are supported by polls.
And while more accepting of gay lifestyles than their parents, young evangelicals ages 19 to 30 are not, however, ready to redefine traditional marriage, Minnery said.
Nevertheless, the evangelical movement is undeniably in transition, Green said. The architects of the Christian right, who 20 to 30 years ago brought people out of the pews to the political arena as faith-based voting bloc, the “values voters,” are passing from the scene.
“I don’t think the voting bloc has diminished in size. It might be entering a period where it is less active,” Green said.
Cromartie disagrees, pointing out the traditional Christian social agenda is still vigorously promoted.
The “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience,” drafted for conservative Christian leaders (evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox) by Chuck Colson, Robert George and Timothy George, was released on the Internet in November and has since been signed by more than 370,000 supporters.
The declaration reaffirms and calls for the defense of fundamental Christian truths, such as the sanctity of life, the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and the rights of conscience and religious liberty.
“Conservative Christians sometimes prosper in opposition (to the establishment),” Green said. “So we’ll know more from the next elections about whether conservative Christians reconstituted themselves.”
Electa Draper: 303-954-1276 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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