A major political question in the run-up to the 2012 election is: How effective will the Christian Right be? The recent mass-prayer rally in Houston led by Texas Governor Rick Perry is the latest indication of the potential potency of the union of politics and faith.
Ronald Reagan soared to victory in 1980 on the wings of the emergent and well-organized Christian Right. Of course, running against an ineffectual incumbent and a tanking economy didn’t hurt. In 2008, Barack Obama also ran against the party in power with the benefit of an economic sucking sound, and the Christian Right was again a factor, but in a different way. This time the conservative Christian voting bloc was far from organized. And the outcome of the election was determined in part by its members either not turning out at all or not voting reliably for the Republican candidate.
Evangelicals, particularly younger ones coming of age well after Reagan’s revolution, demonstrated their independence in 2008. Many abandoned the political faith of their fathers and cast ballots for Mr. Obama, who courted them with political savvy and flare. Doing so, they had to either marginalize or outright reject certain cardinal conservative values held by the older generation. Many of these voters may have already started returning to the conservative fold, as seemed to be in evidence in 2010. But this is not to suggest that they are ready to be organized in the manner of the old Christian Coalition or Moral Majority.
As a minister for nearly 35 years, it is my observation that there are many differences between today’s Evangelicals and those of previous generations when it comes to the ballot box. First, the focus in Evangelical churches today is more on building the Kingdom of God, less on building mere fiefdoms for men by helping win elections for this candidate over that one. Sharing the Gospel and ministering to broken lives are the priorities. Preparing people for whole lives here and better ones in eternity is the agenda. Certainly there is overlap—times when a particular issue (local or national) becomes important—but even then the idea of a think-tank somewhere (conservative, Christian, or both) telling churchgoers for whom or what to vote meets resistance. This comes not because of a lack of relevance or resonance, but rather it is rooted in a palpable desire not to be coerced, controlled or otherwise taken for granted.