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.
The Christian Right’s aspiration to create a reliable voting monolith dates back well beyond 1980. It was actually in 1928 when conservative ministers and congregants first began to flex partisan muscle for the GOP in a fashion that produced undeniable results. Texas, for example—a state that had never voted Republican up to that time—went for Herbert Hoover over the Democrat, and the first Catholic to run for President, Al Smith. This happened largely through the efforts of clergymen, such as the Reverend J. Frank Norris of Fort Worth, following his celebrated trial for first-degree murder. It was the same in New York, with preachers such as John Roach Straton of Manhattan organizing other ministers and effectively blocking Smith’s efforts to even carry the state where he then served as governor. In Kentucky, it was evangelist Mordecai Ham (the man under whose preaching Billy Graham was converted) who helped carry that state for Hoover.
But this success was short-lived and soon swallowed up in the zeitgeist of the Great Depression. The next serious effort to build the Christian Right into a political force came during the early days of the Cold War, with anti-communism serving as a unifier. However, most of the prominent clergymen leading the charge—such as Carl McIntire and Billy James Hargis—found themselves ultimately relegated to various outposts on the lunatic fringe.
Then, as Jimmy Carter lamented American malaise, conservative preachers once again found their partisan voice, their flocks listened, and the Christian Right was widely credited with swinging elections.
That was then.
The faithful still attend church in droves and listen to messages from the pulpit. But these days they mostly seek guidance on matters that transcend and endure. Of course they share a cluster of values that will undoubtedly inform their lifestyle and political choices. But decisions will be arrived at through individual and private deliberation, not through movements, mobilization and top-down hyper-organization.
As thoughtful and well-informed individuals of conscience and concern, Evangelicals will certainly be part of the great national debate and decision in 2012. They will vote their values, likely along the way helping the GOP more than they did in 2008—but not as part of any officially organized bloc. It will be up to the candidates themselves to connect with Evangelical voters and speak to their concerns. From their ministers, Evangelical Christians seek guidance on how to live and worship, not how to vote. Any effort to organize them into a lockstep voting bloc these days simply won’t work, the recent Houston prayer meeting notwithstanding.