Has the evangelical era of American politics run its course? Two terms into the Obama administration, and nearly four decades since George Gallup Jr. declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical,” it is tempting to say yes.
During the run-up to the 2008 election, Barack Obama went out of his way to court moderate and progressive evangelicals, such as Jim Wallis of Sojourners. Yet their role in his administration has not been remotely comparable to that of the Christian Right just ten years ago. Joshua DuBois and Melissa Rogers (respectively the previous and present heads of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) are hardly talk show fodder in the manner of the Bush administration evangelical lightning rods John Ashcroft and Monica Goodling.
The Bush years sparked books like Chris Hedges’s American Fascists. The Obama years tend to inspire pieces with titles like “The Changing Face of Christian Politics.” The point, made by former Obama administration official Michael Wear, is that Christian politics has a new lease on life.
This new life comes at the expense of evangelical relevance, however. Evangelical political capital is quite scattered — useful for building fresh coalitions on immigration, while still holding the line on abortion. This configuration happens to resemble the world-view of Pope Francis. He is in the news a lot more than evangelist Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham.
Such is the view from on high, at least. In many statehouses, evangelical influence is alive and well. Even in red-state America, though, we see a defensive posture that spells retreat, if not outright defeat.
In a proliferating number of legislative initiatives, gay civil rights is cast as a threat to religious liberty. Rather than protesting excessive church-state separation, these efforts embrace an expansive interpretation of religious free exercise.
The contention, while not novel, is telling: conscience trumps open access. Here, conscience applies to commercial property, as in the case of caterers that refuse to serve gay weddings (as opposed to not inviting a couple over for Sunday dinner). This radical view of property rights does Kentucky Senator Rand Paul proud, even though he is often touted as the libertarian antidote to evangelical hegemony in the GOP.
At first glance, the religious liberty angle looks like a savvy strategy. After all, active Christians (including many Catholics and other non-evangelicals) far outnumber avowed secularists. But it is something of a leap of faith to believe that millions of Christian voters will prioritize religious liberty over, say, health care or education.
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Steven P. Miller