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.
Hoping to affirm the traditional political focus of evangelicals and other active religionists, conservative clergy have dispatched the "Judeo Christian Review", in the form of a letter and online journal, to over 325,000 places of worship. Its publisher is O'Neal Dozier, a former player with the Chicago Bears and New York Jets who now pastors an evangelical church in Pompano Beach, Florida.
"If a politician holds that homosexuality is not immoral, if he pushes for homosexual unions, gay military integration, 'same-sex citizenship' and complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act--which protects states from forced recognition of 'gay marriages' performed elsewhere--then we as leaders have both the right and the sacred, affirmative duty to somehow make sure our congregations know the documented facts," reads the opening blast from The Judeo Christian Review, which was mailed to every available church and synagogue address. "If, like ancient King Manasseh or Herod, a sitting or aspiring leader endorses child sacrifice--especially by bloody, excruciating means such as Partial Birth Abortion--we must not only preach from the Bible on the sanctity of innocent human life, we are honor-bound to alert our congregations to precisely what sort of barbarism that person stands for."
The language from The Judeo-Christian Review is obviously blunt. But it may resonate more with typical evangelicals than the more appeals of the elite evangelical left based on environmental concerns and hostility to the U.S. war on terror. McCain has not made strong personal appeals to evangelicals, beyond his selection of evangelical Sarah Palin as his running mate. But the long established conservative voting habits of white evangelicals, which are motivated by but are not limited to social issues, may be enough to ensure solid majorities for the Republican, irrespective of the rest of the electorate.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.