Growing numbers of non-white evangelicals and changing attitudes among younger Christians are reshaping the politics of American Christianity
CONSIDER three young religious-minded people of the left. The first is Andi Sullivan, who set up a charity to distribute mosquito netting to Africa and Asia during her first year at university. The second is Gabriel Salguero, a pastor who advocates immigration reform and better funding for public schools in New York. And the third is Drew Hansen, a legislator who is trying to get gay marriage allowed in his home state of Washington. All three of them are devout evangelical Christians.
Viewed against the broad current of contemporary American evangelical politics, these three examples are outliers. The vast majority of evangelicals oppose gay marriage. They are more likely than non-evangelicals to oppose extra funding for public education, unemployment benefits and aid to the poor, both within and outside America. And a poll taken by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2010 showed that nearly half of all white evangelicals favour deporting illegal immigrants. Ever since they deserted Jimmy Carter—a Southern Baptist generally considered America’s first evangelical, or “born again”, president—for Ronald Reagan in the election of 1980, evangelical Christians have been among the most reliable Republican voters.
Determining just how many evangelicals there are is tricky. Asking people to label themselves in a poll often yields different answers than theological questioning does. That is largely because the word “evangelical” tends to repel blacks, most of whom would describe themselves as “born again”. They share much doctrinally, but little politically, with whites who call themselves evangelicals. But it is safe to say that over one-third of Americans, more than 100m, can be considered evangelical, with the greatest concentration in the South.
The prominence of evangelicals within the Republican Party is increasing: they made up more than half of all Republican voters in the first 16 primaries and caucuses where entry and exit polls were taken, up from 44% in 2008. And fully 70% of white evangelicals consider themselves Republican these days, up from 65% in 2008.
But if those numbers are comforting for Republicans, the trends below the surface are less so. Mitt Romney, the all-but-official Republican nominee, is a Mormon, and has struggled throughout the primaries to win the backing of evangelical voters. And in 2008 Barack Obama won the votes of nearly one in four evangelical voters; comfortably more than the one in five John Kerry won four years earlier. He showed particularly strong gains over Mr Kerry among younger evangelicals, and in swing states. Our three examples might not remain as outliers for too much longer.
As the Republican nominee, Mr Romney is still likely to win a majority of evangelical votes. But where and how he wins those votes matters. If Mr Obama proves as skilled at pressing his advantages with young and non-white voters, evangelical or not, as he was four years ago, and if evangelical voters support Mr Romney less fervently than they did George Bush in 2004 (78%) or John McCain in 2008 (74%), that could spell trouble for the Republicans. The election is forecast both to be close, and to feature a large number of non-white voters, with whom Mr Romney is struggling.
A recent Pew Research Centre poll shows Mr Obama enjoys a handy 93-point lead over Mr Romney among black voters, which is unsurprising. But he also leads Mr Romney among Latinos by 67% to 27%. Most Latinos are Catholic, and most evangelicals are white, but the evangelical Latino population is growing. They number around 10m, with strong concentrations in battleground states such as Virginia, Colorado and Florida. And while Latinos tend to vote Democratic, evangelical Latinos swing: they supported Mr Bush in 2004 and Mr Obama in 2008.
Given the traditional strength of Republicans among evangelicals and the record number of illegal immigrants, mostly Latino, deported by Mr Obama’s administration, Latino evangelicals ought in theory to be easy pickings for Mr Romney in 2012. But that may not be the case. Mr Bush supported immigration reform in the teeth of opposition from congressional Republicans. Mr Romney, on the other hand, was endorsed by and campaigned with Kris Kobach, who helped write the harsh immigration laws passed by Arizona and Alabama. In a January debate he endorsed “self-deportation”, by which life is made so intolerable for illegal immigrants that they simply return home. And he said he would veto the DREAM Act, which aims to offer citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants who graduate from college or serve in the armed forces.
Mr Salguero calls this “a political error in judgment”—a politic way of saying it is electoral suicide as far as Latinos are concerned, since 90% of them support the DREAM Act. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition, which he heads, is organising a voter-registration campaign, “Nuestro Futuro” (Our Future), centred on poverty, immigration reform and education funding. In this drive his organisation is linking up with churches in six states: New York and New Jersey, which are reliably Democratic, as well as Florida, Arizona, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all swing states with fairly large numbers of Latino evangelicals—large enough, perhaps, to tilt a few close races.
To Democrats these may be issues of fairness, or equity, or, as Mr Obama frequently says, of government doing for people only what they cannot do better for themselves. To Latino evangelicals, says Mr Salguero, caring for the poor and “the stranger among us” are moral and religious issues, and collectively they trump similar issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, on which they might find common ground with white evangelicals. “We’re a pro-life community,” Mr Salguero says, “but when we talk about being pro-life, we’re also talking about quality of life, which includes quality of health care, standing against the death penalty, against torture and against pre-emptive war.”
Redefining God’s work
In a similar vein, Mrs Sullivan says that the evangelical right’s focus on abortion and gay marriage “overshadows broader social justice issues”. She insists that among evangelicals of her generation such views are not unusual, and the data back her up. In a 2008 poll, a plurality (44%) of young evangelicals characterised their “political views on social issues (health care, poverty)” as “liberal”. Younger evangelicals are more likely than older ones to favour environmental protection and same-sex marriage. And although they remain overwhelmingly pro-life, nearly one-third of them voted for Mr Obama, suggesting greater willingness to vote for a candidate who believes that abortion must remain a matter of choice.
Then there are the more numinous trends. In 1968 Martin Luther King called Sunday morning “the most segregated hour of Christian America”; today there are a growing number of multicultural evangelical churches, largely driven by young Christians. Soong Chan-Rah, a Korean-American pastor and professor of evangelism at Chicago’s North Park seminary, says the rise in multicultural evangelical churches coincides with a decline in the numbers of traditional white evangelicals, and that the newer kind practise a form of evangelical Christianity distinct from the “white, middle-class and Southern” version. These churches, he says, “don’t have that sense of triumphalism, that sense that America has to be a great Christian nation.”
In the last half of the 20th century, membership of evangelical churches boomed while more traditional church attendance declined; today one-quarter of Americans aged 18-29 (and 16.1% of all Americans) are unaffiliated with any faith. Being unaffiliated is not the same as being atheist or agnostic, but it does suggest a waning of evangelical institutional authority, just as traditional authority in the old-established churches began crumbling several decades ago.
Some might well think that a leftward turn for American Christianity would simply restore it to its proper place. The first president to call himself “born again” was, after all, not Mr Bush, but Mr Carter. The civil-rights movement rested on a Christian call to justice, and most of its leaders came out of the black church. American evangelicals spearheaded the drive to end slavery.
Yet the Devil can quote Scripture, too: many Americans used it to defend slavery and segregation. And Christian voters eventually rejected the devout, low-church Mr Carter in favour of a divorced movie-star longer on charm than piety. All of which suggests that American Christianity—much like both America and Christianity themselves—is fundamentally neither of the left nor the right, but is capacious enough for all comers.
This article appeared on the Economist on 5/10/12