Are evangelicals swing voters?

Posted: May 31, 2006 12:05 AM

At some point in the last eighteen months, a meme was born in the mainstream press that has, so far as I can tell, no basis in fact. According to this meme, politically active evangelical Christians are an "up for grabs" swing group of voters, many of whom are ripe for the Democrats’ picking.  

This bizarre idea was expressed most recently by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post in May. Writes Marcus:

Democrats these days are a party on a mission that might sound impossible: to persuade evangelical Christian voters to consider converting -- to the Democratic Party.

Just as Republicans have worked, and to some extent succeeded, at peeling off some African American voters from the Democratic Party, evangelical voters are too big a part of the electorate (about a quarter) for one party simply to write off.

Democrats have a shot at luring some of them…

The facts do not back up this assertion. Marcus herself bases her argument on some pretty thin evidence. Apparently House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accepted an invitation to the opening of a new mega-church. Howard Dean appeared on the 700 Club (where he lied about what the Democratic Party platform says about gay marriage, by the way). And the founder of Redeem the Vote recently met with the leadership of the Democratic Leadership Council.

This is not the stuff of a groundswell.

President Bush, for example, has been "invited" to meet with Cindy Sheehan on several occasions on the issue of the Iraq War. Accepting the invitation would not win Mr. Bush the endorsement of

Elsewhere, Marcus gets her facts horribly jumbled. For example, she states:

And evangelical voters' growing dissatisfaction with President Bush doesn't appear to be trickling down into congressional races; in a recent Pew poll, 64 percent of evangelicals (compared with 41 percent of all voters) said they would vote for the Republican congressional candidate in November, about the same as in polls before the 2002 midterms.

There is no evidence, so far as I am aware, that evangelicals have expressed a "growing dissatisfaction with President Bush." Rather, as Tony Carnes has observed in Christianity Today, evangelicals remain among the last pro-Bush voter subgroups in America. What is more, these pro-Bush evangelical Christians have expressed a "growing dissatisfaction" with Congress. A recent Family Research Council poll showed that almost two-thirds of evangelical voters believe Republicans in Congress have not kept their promises to "moral values voters." Perhaps Ms. Marcus is projecting her own "growing dissatisfaction" with President Bush, but whatever the case is, she cannot be said to have reflected accurately the views of evangelical Christians in her column.

Finally, Ms. Marcus’ belief that Democrats can whittle away at the GOP’s strength among evangelical Christians only when they begin to seek common ground on issues of poverty and the environment can only be said to have been cribbed from the Democrats’ playbook. This entreaty has been made by various high-level Democrats since Election Day 2004 and betrays both a naiveté about why evangelicals tend to vote Republican and an arrogance surrounding the political left’s position on these two issues.  

Evangelicals vote Republican because evangelicals are social conservatives. And at this time in our nation’s political history the Republican Party represents those same socially conservative values. John C. Green—whom Marcus relies on for her column—acknowledges as much in a recent article he co-wrote with BeliefNet’s Steve Waldman for The Atlantic. Green and Waldman identified three key religious “tribes” within the GOP’s electoral coalition: the Religious Right, Heartland Culture Warriors, and Moderate Evangelicals.  

The groups differ in their varying degrees of religious and political orthodoxy, but Green and Waldman describe all three groups as conservative on cultural issues. And while it is true, as Marcus points out that only 47% of Moderate Evangelicals are self-identified Republicans, 64% of these folks voted to re-elect President Bush in 2004. Their behavior on Election Day makes them, in effect, a larger Republican voting bloc than mere voter registration numbers indicate.

Ms. Marcus’ column appeared in the same week that an Amy Sullivan piece appeared in The New Republic. Sullivan’s piece was subtitled, “The Christian right moves left,” and TNR teased the reader on the cover with the provocative headline, “Swinging Evangelicals.” At this point, it should become obvious that we are dealing with an orchestrated effort to create the impression that liberals are gaining traction with Christian conservatives. Forget about all that “Theo-Con” stuff, it’s time for Democrats to “take back the faith!”  

But Sullivan’s piece is fatally flawed and dishonest in its omissions.  

Sullivan writes of the National Association of Evangelicals’ (NAE) vice president for governmental affairs Richard Cizik’s work on global climate change as if Cizik represents the broader NAE in this regard. He does not. The NAE has not endorsed Mr. Cizik’s Evangelical Climate Initiative and several leaders within that organization have expressed to me frustration with Mr. Cizik’s freelancing. Ms. Sullivan does not mention that the NAE’s official position on global climate change is identical to that of Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson’s Prison Ministries (the stodgy old rightwing zealots in Sullivan’s account.)

Elsewhere in her article, Sullivan observes that a Christian biology professor named Joseph Sheldon derided Sen. Rick Santorum’s environmental record after the screening of an environmentally extremist documentary on the campus of Messiah College, Professor Sheldon’s employer. Sullivan creates the impression that a bunch of rightwing Christian kids went bananas when they discovered that Santorum had voted against the Kyoto Accord (along with 98 of his colleagues, it should be added). But Sullivan leaves out the inconvenient truth (to borrow a phrase) that professor Sheldon is, above all else, a long-time environmental activist who, as far back as 1996, evoked the biblical story of Noah and the flood to advocate for a hard line version of the Endangered Species Act. What is more, sources familiar with the event tell me that more Casey for Senate staffers and supporters attended the event than born again Christians. The screening was, in short, a thinly-veiled rally for Sen. Santorum’s political opponent. No wonder Sen. Santorum declined the invitation. Sullivan leaves all this information out of her piece.

Posturing is important in the game of electoral politics, so no one can blame the Democrats for pretending to be the new party of the faithful in the run-up to the 2006 election. And the motives of Messrs. Cizik and Sheldon are not in question; they, we can assume, are believing Christians with passionate (if minority) views about the preferred direction of political evangelicalism.

Ms. Marcus and Ms. Sullivan, however, have earned our condemnation for dressing up their wish fulfillment in the clothes of journalism. They have soiled the pages of the Washington Post and The New Republic in pursuit of political gain for their favored political party.