I have seen the future of evangelical Christianity, and it is pierced. And sometimes tattooed. And often has one of those annoying, wispy chin beards.
Those who think of evangelical youths as the training cadre of the religious right would have been shocked at Jubilee 2008, a recent conference of 2,000 college students in Pittsburgh sponsored by the Coalition for Christian Outreach. I was struck by the students' aggressive idealism -- there were booths promoting causes from women's rights to the fight against modern slavery to environmental protection. Judging from the questions I was pounded with, the students are generally pro-life -- but also concerned about poverty and deeply opposed to capital punishment and torture. More than a few came up to me between sessions in anguished uncertainty, unable to consider themselves Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative -- homeless in the stark partisanship of American politics.
Many observers have detected a shift -- a broadening or maturation -- of evangelical social concerns beyond the traditional agenda of the religious right. But does this have political implications?
Perhaps. Recent Zogby polls in Missouri and Tennessee found that about a third of white evangelicals who showed up on primary day voted Democratic. The sample sizes were small. Yet John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum, finds the results interesting. "These results are higher than usual. Typically these numbers would be about a quarter."
At the same time, this primary season has demonstrated that evangelicalism is hardly a spent force in the Republican coalition.
Early in this political cycle, some in the media described an "evangelical crackup" among activists who were divided, dispirited and disillusioned. Pat Robertson abandoned the evangelical social agenda entirely to endorse pro-choice Rudy Giuliani, arguing that the war on terror trumped all else.
But 60 percent of caucus-goers in Iowa were evangelicals who gave one of their own, Mike Huckabee, a solid victory -- a trend that has continued in states such as Georgia, Tennessee and Kansas, where religious conservatives are concentrated. Evangelicals are still turning out, still supporting Republicans and still care about social issues.
Even the rise of Huckabee, however, seems to confirm a broadening of evangelical priorities. While the traditional movement conservative in the race, Fred Thompson, focused narrowly on federalism and limited government, Huckabee has consistently talked about the struggles of low-income workers with stagnant wages. This led Thompson to dismiss Huckabee as "a pro-life liberal." In the revised Huckabee version, social conservatism has a touch of the social gospel.
Republicans should take note, because they have growing problems among the post-religious-right generation of evangelicals. An analysis by the Pew Research Center found that 55 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 identified themselves as Republican in 2001. By 2007, that figure had dropped to 40 percent. This generation is not turning into liberal Democrats -- it is more pro-life, for example, than an older generation of evangelicals -- but it has become more loosely moored to the GOP.
These trends highlight a simple fact: Many evangelicals are center-right voters who respond to a message of social justice and community values, not only to a message of rugged individualism and unrestricted markets. Over the years, religious conservatives have made common cause with movement conservatives within the Republican Party -- but they are not identical to movement conservatives.
Sometimes religious conservatives are understandably more sympathetic to one party than to another. For Northern abolitionist evangelicals in the 1850s, the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln was a more natural home. For my Nazarene preacher grandfather in Kentucky, the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt stood for God and the common man. Since the 1980s, evangelicals have returned to the Republican fold, largely because Democrats embraced abortion on demand, moral relativism and intrusive, bureaucratic government.
But there is something essentially countercultural about Christianity that should make evangelicals restless in any political coalition. Christianity indicts oppressive government -- but also the soul-destroying excesses that sometimes come in free markets and consumerism. It teaches enduring moral rules -- and an emphasis on justice for the least and the lost. It is often hard where liberalism is soft, and soft where conservatism is hard.
If evangelical Christianity were identical to any political movement, something would be badly wrong. It is supposed to look toward a kingdom not of this world, one without borders, flags or end. And by this standard, homelessness is a natural state.
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