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The "Changing" Evangelical Movement?

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Pundits love to put their subjects into tidy little boxes—it makes their talking points easier. After all, people in little boxes are not complicated or nuanced. No doubt that's why the media has long tried to put evangelicals into a box. The problem, however, is that the media has been using the wrong box for evangelicals for decades.

Ever since the rise of the Moral Majority, the media has been labeling evangelicals "values voters." The assumption has been that evangelicals are concerned with a limited set of values, that they always act on the basis of those limited values, and that they are, therefore, less complicated or sophisticated than the rest of society. In the past few decades, the media has spotlighted abortion and homosexuality as the primary evangelical issues. Now with the waning popularity of the Bush Administration—an administration that has gotten a lot of mileage out of those issues—the media is trumpeting the downfall of traditional evangelicals and the rise of a new "centrist" or "leftist" evangelicalism. The old evangelicals who put Bush in office have lost. They are dying and being replaced by a new evangelicalism that is concerned with the environment, poverty, and human rights.

Charles Colson and Anne Morse respond to this supposed shift eloquently in Christianity Today. They argue that evangelicals have always had a broad set of concerns, including Sudanese slavery, sex trafficking, AIDS in Africa, and prison rape, in addition to abortion and homosexuality. Colson and Morse believe that the limited perception of evangelicals was put in place by the media, who like to build up and then destroy groups because "it's good copy."

The reality is that evangelicals are not characterized by one or two "values" any more than any other large voting group. Most voters have a number of concerns on which they base their voting. These issues can vary: leadership, abortion, war, foreign relations, experience, economic policy, marriage and family, bioethics, welfare, healthcare, etc. Diversity among evangelicals on issues is no less common than among other large voting groups. Some evangelicals have always leaned left while others leaned right.

Expressions of concern about the need to protect the environment or to fight poverty do not indicate a gigantic shift among evangelicals. They do not represent abandonment of the old for the new. Christian duties are far more numerous than the two-to-three issues subsumed under the label "values voter." Concern for people dying from AIDS in Africa does not negate concern for babies dying in the womb in America. Sensitivity to these issues stems from evangelicals' main source of guidance: the teachings of the Bible.

The beliefs of evangelicals are the basis of their actions. The media has long picked up on the issues of abortion and homosexual marriage while ignoring their root: belief in the Bible. This is why so many members of the media have trouble understanding and predicting the actions of evangelicals. Right now, they see evangelicals as shifting their core values or giving up the cultural war. But if they would dig down to the root of evangelical issues, they would see that both the old and the new are based on a biblical ethic.

Many also misinterpret the evangelical shift away from the Republican Party. Evangelicals are not leaving the Republican Party because they've changed—they're leaving because the Party didn't come through on its promises. Evangelicals joined in with Republicans because they were in sympathy with the party on a number of issues, including ending abortion, strengthening the family, eliminating scandal, and restoring fiscal accountability in government. The Republican Party made grand promises in all of these areas; yet when the Party gained power, it ignored many of these concerns for the duration of its tenure (except for short spurts right before elections). A retreat from the Republican Party does not suggest a fundamental evangelical shift—it suggests their disillusionment with the Republican Party.

There is, however, one positive and real change that the media has picked up on. While evangelicals aren't changing their concerns, they are changing their approach. They appear to be moving away from some of the vitriolic rhetoric of the past. Increasingly, they are approaching the political sphere with carefully reasoned arguments. In 1995, William Buckley was interviewed by Michael Cromartie on the subject of the "growing influence of religious conservatives." Buckley saw no real danger in evangelicals participating in politics. In fact, he saw their positions as consistent with their beliefs. On the motivations of evangelicals, he said, "They've figured out that our foundations need restoring, and I have never doubted that those foundations are religious."

Buckley's only concern for evangelicals was that they would be careful which answers they presented and how they presented them. He emphasized careful rhetoric, saying, "What frightens people most about the Religious Right is the rhetoric that is sometimes used." His advice seems to be affecting evangelicals today. Young evangelicals are still concerned with the same broad set of issues, but they appear to have embraced a rhetoric which is more reasoned than bombastic.

Evangelicals have a broad array of concerns that flow from the truths of the Bible. They are every bit as complicated as any other voters. Until the media understands evangelicals on their own terms, they will continue to misunderstand their political effect.

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