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Votes of the Faithful

Most evangelicals are not following the leftward lurch of some prominent Christian groups.

12:00 AM, Oct 31, 2008 • By MARK D. TOOLEY
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The evangelical left, still stung by 70-75 percent evangelical support for George W. Bush in 2004, has been insisting that more evangelicals will vote Democrat if steered away from same-sex marriage and abortion and towards Global Warming and poverty. Leading the charge for this redirection has been the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), whose Washington, D.C. representative, Richard Cizik, virtually endorsed Barak Obama on National Public Radio last month.

Cizik told NPR he was "undecided," but he loudly praised Obama. "I'm a conservative, but it doesn't mean I'm going to vote that way. I could disagree with Obama, and do, on same-sex marriage and abortion, but that doesn't mean I'll, on those issues alone, vote against him. Because I think there are characteristics and integrity issues that are more important. And I would ask my fellow Americans and fellow evangelicals what kind of temperament do you want in the Oval Office?"

According to Cizik, John McCain is a "bit of a warrior." In pleasant contrast, "Barack Obama is a healer; he's looking to build common ground even with his opponents. That's my personal style; I'm always looking to find common ground between the liberals and conservatives on with views on climate change, international religious freedom, Darfur and the genocide occurring there, on all these issues of trafficking. I'm looking to find ways, for example, for evangelicals to bridge the gap, join, for example, feminists. As we can find common ground that's fine, let's do it. That's Barack Obama's forte."

Cizik's NAE, to which 45,000 congregations at least theoretically belong through the membership of their denominations, was once a conventional conservative religious organization, focused on traditional social issues. Famously, Ronald Reagan delivered his "evil empire" speech to the NAE in 1983. But since 1994, when long-time chief Billy Melvin retired after nearly 30 years, NAE has lacked strong leadership. It was founded in the 1940's as an evangelical alternative to the liberal National Council of Churches. But just as the declining NCC became increasingly irrelevant starting in the 1970's, so too did its conservative counterpart, though lagging by 2 decades.

Seeking to revive the NAE through primarily climate change activism, Cizik has become its de facto chief spokesman. NAE's president is the more low key Minnesota megachurch pastor Leith Anderson. Under Anderson and Cizik, NAE has also criticized the Bush Administration for supposedly countenancing torture, recently convened a conference touting an open borders immigration policy, and is preparing a critical new policy stance on nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the NAE, while still officially pro-life and pro-traditional marriage, has largely fallen silent on those issues.

Cizik explained to NAE that evangelicals fit comfortably with the Republican Party "less so than in the past." While President Bush was "'one of us' so to speak," Cizik said, "John McCain [isn't] in that sense, so he's selected someone he thinks does, Sarah Palin. But we're not as comfortable as we used to be. The Democrats have as many issues appealing to evangelicals as the Republicans. On some issues of compassion, international religious freedom, justice, the Democrats weigh heavily. On sanctity of life, protection of the traditional family, the Republicans are better, and so no party has a monopoly on God, let's face it." It is not clear how Cizik gave Democrats higher marks on religious liberty issues, but clearly he hopes that "compassion" topics, by which he presumably means welfare state issues, will at least weigh even with social issues.

While Cizik and the NAE are increasingly aligned with evangelical left groups like Jim Wallis' Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action, and even with its old nemesis, the National Council of Churches, it's not clear how strongly NAE now speaks for most evangelicals. A new Gallup poll shows that white weekly church goers prefer McCain over Obama by 65 percent to 28 percent. Even weekly church going Hispanics, a large portion of whom are evangelicals, favor McCain by 46 percent to 43 percent. A Pew Forum poll shows that 65 percent of white evangelicals prefer McCain, versus 22 percent for Obama. Seemingly climate change and torture, so touted by the Evangelical Left, have not moved a lot of evangelicals away from their traditional conservative voting habits.