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Is the Evangelical Left Fizzling?

12:00 AM, Dec 16, 2010 • By MARK TOOLEY
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Over the last several years the old religious right reputedly has been melting down, with younger, more liberal evangelicals in the ascendency. But exit polling from the 2010 midterm election indicate no major political shift among evangelical or Protestant voters.

Is the Evangelical Left Fizzling?

According to CNN's exit poll, 77 percent of self-described white evangelicals or born again Christians voted Republican. This number is actually higher than the 74 percent who supported George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, which was considered a high water mark for conservative evangelical activism.  Seventy percent of white evangelicals and born-agains voted Republican in 2008 and 2006. The total white Protestant vote (including members of more liberal mainline denominations) was 69 percent Republican this year, compared to 65 percent in 2004 and slightly less in 2008 and 2006. Total Protestant and other non-Catholic Christian support for Republicans was 59 percent this year, compared to 57 percent in 2004.  

Jim Wallis has been the most prominent liberal evangelical touting a supposed evangelical shift away from traditional concerns about abortion and same-sex unions and towards environmentalism and more government welfare.  Frequently boasting of his ties to the Obama administration, Wallis was euphoric about the 2008 election.  Remaining supportive overall of Obama, he has dissented over Afghanistan policy and Obama’s tax cut compromise with Senate Republicans. Wallis’s criticisms of Obama so far have been rhetorically restrained, but his anger at Tea Party activism has been acerbic. He let loose during a recent visit in Great Britain, where he was on a “Justice Now” tour, and where British media described him as a “spiritual advisor to Obama.”

“We are now controlled by the right-wing media,” Wallis explained to the British, citing “Fox News and all the rest.”  The conservative media is “ideological” and insists that “America is best” and “the rest of you don’t even count,” he bewailed. America now regards “the rich” as representing “salvation.” And Glenn Beck, whose attacks on Wallis’s brand of “social justice” Christianity have been ongoing, is America’s “new big star.”  Wallis complained that Beck weekly accuses him of being a Communist, Marxist, socialist, or Nazi. But what else can be expected, in a country where most are addicted to the “drug” of “consumerism,” Wallis observed while condemning America as an “unjust society.” Most U.S. Christians are much more influenced by “American materialism” and by “American nationalism,” than by the Gospel, he further opined, which is why they are “in decline.”  He also bemoaned “endless, stupid wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” In an interview with a British newspaper Wallis lambasted Fox News as part of a "very calculated attempt" by conservative media to undermine Obama. "The Murdoch-Fox News channel is trying to religiously assassinate Barack Obama," he claimed, while also surmising that the Tea Party is racist.

Although less polemical than Wallis, the once conservative National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has for several years been moving left.  Somewhat oddly, NAE president Leith Anderson, a Minnesota megachurch pastor, announced in a recent NAE news release that: “President Obama has the support of evangelical leaders on a number of issues and initiatives.”   The release cited 18 supposed issues of agreement, including support for the new START treaty, use of drones to fight terrorism, and the “reduction of abortion and emphasis on fatherhood,” without explaining what those ostensible stances actually mean. “Not surprisingly, immigration was the most mentioned item of agreement,” boasted Anderson, who has made support for comprehensive immigration reform probably NAE’s most high profile issue of late.  Remarkably, the retired executive director of the Christian Reformed Church of North America was quoted supporting Obamacare: “The bill that was passed may not be perfect, and the task may not yet be done, but the President has my support for addressing a critical issue against significant political opposition.”

NAE conducted an “Evangelical Leaders Survey” of its own board, in which respondents were restrictively asked to “name one issue on which they agree with President Obama.” The survey was apparently not interested in any disagreement. “In the current political climate, many focus their energy on fueling issues of disagreement – people of faith included,” Anderson said. "But, I find it really interesting that evangelical leaders readily look for where we can agree and support." Suggesting that most evangelicals support Obamacare seems absurd. Its provision facilitating abortions is certainly not supported by evangelicals, and was even, quietly, opposed by NAE. Several NAE officials have touted New START, but it is hardly a widely mobilizing issue among among evangelicals. The recent election results indicate that evangelicals, unlike the NAE poll of itself, probably are not overly inclined to search for political agreement with the administration.

Exit polls of actual voting by evangelicals indicate that the evangelical left remains primarily a phenomenon among evangelical elites on seminary and college campuses and among some parachurch and activist groups. The prolonged wars, culture clashes, and ultimate financial collapse during the George W. Bush years undoubtedly moved some evangelical elites and young people to the left. But the ongoing recession, explosion of government spending, and liberal stances on abortion and homosexuality by the Obama administration (the NAE quietly opposes revoking “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), along with the president's discomfort with American exceptionalism, have likely solidified grassroots evangelicals overall within their traditional conservative politics. Like left-leaning mainline Protestant elites starting decades ago, evangelical elites increasingly will probably denounce their own constituency for its lack of political enlightenment.

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