Evangelicals Turn Left

It was amusing when someone noted Romeny’s Mormonism and Obama’s blackness as being, in the mind of the average American, comparable to Alien vs Predator. A good point was being made with that humorous framing. Times they are a’changin.

A Mormon as president is in some ways a more shocking possibility than a black man. Christians, especially conservative Christians, haven’t had a positive opinion of Mormons, considering them not Christian or else a cult. The religious right isn’t known for being open-minded and inclusive toward groups seen as foreign or strange.

What emphasizes this sense of shifting alliances is that Ryan the Catholic was chosen as the running mate to Romney the Mormon. This is truly fascinating. For a long time, it was Evangelicals who were the base of the Republican Party. Catholics and Mormons are very different animals for they both come out of strongly hierarchical traditions, the opposite of the more populist tendencies of Evangelicals.

I was thinking about what this might mean. Does this represent a demographic shift in the GOP base? Or does it just represent a demographic shift in the GOP leadership? Who is the new religious right?

As if to answer my question, I came across a telling piece of info in a book review of The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism by David R. Swartz (“Pro-Life, Pro-Left” by Molly Worthen):

“70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars”

That is mind-blowing. Evangelicals have been the force behind the religious right for decades. They helped takeover the conservative movement and the Republican Party. They elected George W. Bush, a fellow Evangelical. But now the religious right has lost the Evangelicals and their loyalty is up for grabs.

Partly, this is just a demographic shift among Evangelicals themselves. Evangelicals have been known to make such shifts. Before the Culture Wars, the Evangelicals had been the force behind many other movements such as the Populists who paved the way for the Progressives… and, of course, evangelicals were major players in the Civil Rights movement.

Conservatives have taken Evangelicals for granted. That is a mistake that might be costly, but it is unclear who might benefit. There are a whole lot of other shifts going on right now. It is hard to see where it is all heading.

10 thoughts on “Evangelicals Turn Left

  1. This is so much so that I guess I need a program to tell the players apart. What is the difference, for you? Are all Evangelicals Christians. What does ‘religious right’ mean and how is that different from Conservatives in the USA these days?

    You said:

    Evangelicals have been the force behind the religious right for decades.


    And hi there!

  2. Hello OM!

    The religious right was led by Evangelicals such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwel and James Dobson. I’ve never heard of Evangelicals as referring to anyone other than Christians, but among Christians such terms can have different meanings.

    It always depends on who you ask. Many people don’t believe there is a difference between religious right and conservatives. Then again, many people conflate conservatism with libertarianism. Many libertarians, though, don’t accept this conflation. There are plenty of Republicans who are fiscally conservative while being socially liberal, and these peolple don’t always take kindly to the religious right trying to control the conservative movement. For example, Goldwater didn’t like the religious right.

    I can’t speak with certainty about the numbers. I know that Catholics are evenly divided between the two parties whereas Mormons are mostly Republican. I couldn’t say if there ever was a majority of Evangelicals who identified with the religious right, even though maybe the majority of the most vocal and influential evangelicals became the leaders and activists of the religious right. There has always been a significant number of evangelicals in the religous left, but they were never as well organized.

    Also, there was always a race divide among evangelicals. White evangelicals are more Republican and minority evangelicals, especially blacks, are more Democratic. Mormons have always been a very white demographic and their genetics is mostly English, not as ethnically diverse as Evangelicals or Catholics. Part of the shift seen in religion is caused by a shift in racial demographics.

    My thinking here is focused on what is becoming of the base of the GOP. In the past, it was assumed that white Evangelicals were the base because they were so politically organized. Their promotion of the culture wars drove a wedge between the Democratic Party and many of the former Democratic base, especially white union labor members who weren’t interested in what they perceived as identity politics (black civil rights movement, women’s rights, gay rights, etc).

    I don’t know if that is helpful.

    • Nope. I think I need definitions. What makes an Evangelical an Evangelical, and what makes the Religious Right religious right? I am aware that there are “evangelicals” (lower case “e”) in nearly every religion, so I know they are not all Christians, but it seems as if religious and political terms are being mixed here, and I don’t know what the terms mean.

      More interesting, what is it about being evangelical about one’s religion which would lead one to align with Conservatives in politics, and are Conservatives the ‘religious right?’ You indicated some people say they are the same, others don’t.

      What are the core beliefs of each of those three terms, by which I could see similarities and differences relevant to religion and politics?

      I myself as you know, of course would never conflate libertarians with conservatives or religious right, as I know so much about the “spectrum of libertarianism.” But these other terms get tossed around, and I’ve never bothered to check ’em out, but you got me to thinking, which of course is always your aim for your readers, I think, LOL!!.

  3. There are a several problems with offering definitions of who is and isn’t Evangelical.

    First, as you pointed out, there is a difference between Evangelicals as a semi-specific religious group or movement within Christianity and evangelicals as a broad term describing a general type of religion or religiosity. As for the latter, I rarely if ever hear people speak about small ‘e’ evangelicals. That term just isn’t used much, at least not in America. Anytime I’ve come across the issue being discussed in the MSM or the average blog, it nearly always is a discussion of big ‘E’ Evangelicals. You’ll have to look elsewhere if you want an analysis of what evangelicalism might mean across all of the world’s religions.

    Second, I’m not an Evangelical. I was raised in Unity Church that came out of the Evangelical movement and I have relatives who are Evangelicals, but my personal experience of Evengelicals is severely limited. I’m not sure any definition I offer matters that much.

    Third, even Evangelicals don’t always agree about definitions. It isn’t so much an issue of definitions, rather labels. You’d have to ask Evangelicals why they choose to self-identify that way. Many of them probably couldn’t tell you. It’s moreso a general social category that can include quite a bit of theological and political diversity, not to mention racial diversity and I suppose ethnic diversity as well.

    I’ve looked into various definitions in the past, but the most I can say is that it is complex. I don’t know why people choose to self-identify one way or another. I’m perplexed that a significant number of the most liberal of liberals choose to self-identify as conservatives and even vote Republican. Heck if I know. Many Americans seem quite confused or simply not very well informed about issues, much less definitions.

    The main problem is that there might be very little that all Evangelicals agree upon, although the religious right would be a more narrow category. Just considering the more narrow religious right, it includes Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, and much else.

    The only thing that unites them are the culture wars, i.e. being against abortion, gay marriage, premarital sex, sex education, easy availability of contraceptives, secularism in education and politics, multiculturalism, atheism, the war on Christmas, intellectual liberal elites, any science that contradicts their preferred theology or that is government-funded, and on and on. There are a ton of possible issues that any given religious right supporter might consider important, but any single issue may not be important for all religious right supporters.

    It’s easier to say what they are against, rather than what they are for. The closest to a universal value would ‘family values’ as a generalized abstraction that approximately correlates to the American-style nuclear family as portrayed in 1950s tv shows. Atheism and secularism, though, are their ultimate enemies. Meanwhile, fundies of other faiths such as Muslims are their direct competitors in the world.

    Now, the issue of defining conservatives is a whole other can of worms. I’ve written numerous very long blog posts trying to figure that one out.

    I fear I can’t be much help to you. I can’t speak for Evangelicals, the religious right or conservatives. I can only point out certain points of data and speculate thereupon, but my speculations may or may not have any merit.

  4. Evangelicals are Christians who believe that the every word of the Bible is literal truth as handed down by God to mankind. I would contend that this involves strapping on the blinders and being willing to engage in a huge amount of rationalization or downright willful ignorance.

    The Bible is so full of contradictions that my own opinion is that the only way this can be reconciled with the contention that it is also divinely inspired would be if God purposefully intended it to be an irresolvable paradoxical document, along the lines of a Zen koan, which was designed, when contemplated upon, to provoke a transcendental mystical experience.

    In my opinion, Evangleicals have been pandered to by the political right on the subject of wedge issues like abortion and birth control and homosexuality for so long that they have come to view progressives as evil. This despite the fact that Jesus, in the absolutley ultimate authority of scripture, is most of the time both a social and a fiscal liberal.

    Pardon me if I sound bitter, but I had a very long term on-line friendship with an Evangelical which terminated immediately when I mentioned my interest in “bible studies” of the type popularized by Bart Ehrman et al. Evangelicals do not want to hear about their blindless to reason or be confronted with examples of their cognative dissonance. They definitely don’t like to have Biblical contradictions rubbed in their faces. It’s a waste of time to point out that Jesus advocated for the poor, against the rich, and that up until recently, their infallible leaders regarded Mormons as evil cultists. In my opinion, this is a direct result of their intolerance for other religions. Either you believe that Jesus is your savior or you’re damned. Most other belief systems do not insist on this exclusivity. So the Bible must be “better” than any other religious scriptures that are followed by the heathens.

    Of course, it’s not unheard of for some Evangelicals to come around and develop some tolerance and some Christ-like compassion, but then they pretty much cease to be Evangelicals. One thing that conservative strategists are very good at is goading people into accepting radical but ultimately untenable positions. Then they go absolutely ballistic if some poor soul dares to switch sides and point out that the emperor has no clothes. People by nature don’t want to admit they’re wrong, and that they’ve been used, so they ignore the turth and blurt about blasphemy and Satan. Conservative propagandists count on this to keep the sheep in the fold, especially when the wrongdoings of the so-called “family values party” are exposed. Personally, I think if Satan were to try to pervert the love which is the true basis of Christ’s teachings into something evil, he’d go about it just like the conservative politicians have. They’ve taken a force which should by nature be liberal and turned it into a reliable source of votes for the money-changers and greed-heads who have very little compassion for their fellow human beings and judging by their actions, very little concern for securing a place in the Christian heaven.

    • I’m not as bitter as you about this topic, but I empathize with your frustration.

      You are correct that many Evangelicals aren’t very intellectual and many are in fact anti-intellectual. That comes from their emphasis on having a personal relationship with Jesus and hence an emphasis on emotional experience, specifically in terms of being converted or born-again. On the other hand, there are Evangelicals who aren’t emotionally anti-intellecual in this extreme way. There is no theological reason why an Evangelical can’t have a personal relationship with Jesus and an intellectual relationship to studying the Bible.

      There is one positive aspect in this personal relationship with Jesus. It causes Evangelicals to be very critical and challenging of more hierarchical religions such as Catholics and Mormons. Evangelicalism tends to be very decentralized with little formal structure organizing all the churches together. Evangelical congregationis often aren’t beholden to any external religious authority and so make their own decisions about operating their churches. This has been a contributing factor to the decentralized, populist democracy that took hold in the 19th century. So, Evangelicals are partly responsible for both the Populist movement and the Progressive movement. Evangelicals have been very reform-minded when it comes to politics.

      Certainly, they know how to organize on a grassroots level.

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