Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Evangelical vote up for grabs

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR's resident religion reporter, had a wonderful piece on the air this afternoon that began with the Rev. Jerry Falwell's death, transitioned into his ruminations that the green movement was "Satan's attempt to redirect the church's primary focus," and then moved into territory not talked about often enough: That many of today's evangelical Christian are not members of the party of Falwell or Robertson or Dobson. They are, as I like to call them, Reluctant Republicans.

They think abortion is bad and they're uncomfortable with the thought of gay sex -- but, you know, they have this gay friend -- and they don't know what to make of stem cell research because they're not sure what it is. Also important to them are the environment and issues relating to social justice -- hunger, poverty, genocide -- of which they see Jesus as the greatest proponent.

I came across this issue at an RNA conference two years ago, shortly after President Bush had been re-elected on the overblown moral values issue. (Polls show that the vaguely bound "moral values" button played as significant a role in voters decisions for those who re-elected Bill Clinton, too.) But the movement away from the hard-line old times is getting stronger.

That's why Hagerty traveled to Florida, to the Northland Church, a megacenter pastored by Joel Hunter, who was inline to head the Christian Coalition, if he only could have watched the environment rot. What she found was a bunch of Bush-voting Republicans more likely to follow Bono than Pat Boone (no offense to Mr. Boone, who attends The Church on the Way in Van Nuys).

That creates a dilemma for Northland member Ruth Sapp, who was coming out of service on a recent Sunday morning.

"I still believe that same-sex marriage is not Biblical," she said. "So I wouldn't vote for someone who contradicted."

Ditto about abortion, she said. So what happens if all the candidates fall short on these moral issues?

"I wouldn't vote for anybody if that were the case," she said. "I guess I'd have to skip my vote for that go-around."

Voters like Sapp terrify the Republican Party — or at least they should, says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

"Depending on the candidates, it could well be the case that evangelicals say, 'We're just really frustrated with politics. We don't like the choices. We don't think Sen. Clinton is a good choice or Sen. Obama — but on our side, we're not really pleased with Mayor Guiliani. And you know what? We're not going to vote,'" he said. "And I'm sure there will be pollsters saying, 'Karl Rove thought 4 million staying home in 2000 was a lot. Well guess what? 12 million stayed home.'"

Cromartie doubts there will be such a large shift. But even if a small percentage of these new evangelicals stay home or vote Democratic, that could translate into a couple of million votes. Far less is needed to become president. In Florida, the home state of Northland church, George W. Bush won by 537 votes in the year 2000 — a small fraction of the worshippers streaming into the church on any given Sunday.

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