Since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, conservative evangelicals have served as a formidable political force. Comprising over one the third of the electorate, evangelicals voting in concert have faithfully delivered numerous victories to conservative candidates.
But that may be changing for several different reasons.
First and foremost is the war in Iraq. The war, as is true for most Americans, has become deeply troubling for many Christians. While there is a hardcore base that would never doubt President Bush’s policies, the war has done much to drain away significant evangelical support for conservative causes.
Another factor is the loss of two prominent spokesmen for the religious right. The death of Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, and D. James Kennedy, longtime pastor and founder of Reclaiming America, has left the movement without two of its most powerful voices.
Adding to the struggle is the current field of Republican presidential hopefuls–none of whom is really gaining traction with conservative Christians. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, came out early for Fred Thompson but backed off as Thompson’s spotty church affiliation became an embarrassment.
Ironically, Land has been making positive comments about Mitt Romney. What makes this so strange is that Baptists and Mormons have sparred in the past over whether or not Mormons are really Christians. Mormons say they are, but Southern Baptists say they are not. What Land is saying now is that Mormons are a fourth Abrahamic faith, the first three being Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in that order.
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is not happy with any of the candidates. He is especially not happy with Rudy Giuliani who appears to be the Republican front runner. Giuliani is on the wrong side of both of Dobson’s favorite issues–abortion and homosexuality. Amazingly, however, Pat Robertson has endorsed Giuliani in spite of the candidate’s stand on these issues–a classic case of politics trumping principle.
If Giuliani is the Republican nominee, and Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, Dobson has threatened to organize a third party campaign. If evangelicals do this, it will be the end of the religious right as a political force in America. As a voting bloc the religious right has had tremendous influence. But if candidates learn they can win without the evangelical vote, the faith community may find itself on the sidelines.
A third party run would demonstrate just how fragile the Christian vote is. They are huge when linked to other groups of voters, but on their own they are small. A third party bid would most certainly hurt Republican chances, and the Christian right would be blamed for putting Hillary Clinton in the White House.
A recent New York Times editorial suggests that the religious right may simply be running out of steam. David Kirkpatrick in a piece titled “The Evangelical Crackup,” notes that many congregations have grown weary of the incessant political activity of their pastors and have moved to replace them with more church focused leaders.
If this is true, it could be a positive development for both church and state. Faith should never be absent from our public lives. But faith used as a political weapon ultimately distorts the meaning of faith and politics. We can be salt and light with selling our souls to a political party.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.