Claiming evangelicals are converting from Republican sin to Democratic salvation doesn’t make it so no matter how many times that chorus is sung, and it has been sung over and over by progressive community organizers, quasi-religious politicians and liberal reporters. Praying for a miracle is not the same as declaring that the miraculous has happened.
“Evangelicalism has experienced a sea change,” claimed Sojourners’ Jim Wallis last week, continuing his declaration that evangelicals are shifting away from the Christian Right toward a broader moral agenda and moving out of the dome of loyalty to the Republican Party.
“A historic shift is occurring,” claimed Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a loosely affiliated coalition of denominations with a paper-thin Web site of resources. “It is equivalent to an earthquake in slow motion ”people aren’t sensing it.”
He declared, “We are no longer single-issue voters, number one, and we’re not going to blindly follow prominent leaders in the Religious Right or otherwise who are telling us what we have to believe.”
Cizik’s organization is made up of evangelical, Pentecostal and holiness churches. Neither the massive Southern Baptist Convention nor the sizeable African-American Baptist denominations are members.
Others claim they see the emergence of a powerful evangelical center that will play a significant role that may determine the outcome of the 2008 presidential election.
These claims dovetail nicely with the agenda of some quasi-Christian organizations which represent the Democratic Party at prayer. These activists may be faithful Democrats, but don’t confuse them with evangelicals who carry their Bibles to church every Sunday.
Some liberal reporters and columnists are co-conspirators in selling the narrative about the shift among evangelical voters toward the Democrats.
Only a few days ago, Time magazine editor Amy Sullivan argued in a piece titled “Are Evangelicals Really Sold on Palin?” that Sarah Palin was outside mainstream evangelicalism and would not appeal to younger evangelicals. Sullivan claimed that Palin’s position on global warming was at odds with younger evangelicals and offered as proof a link to another Time story titled “The Greening of the Baptists.”
Herein is the problem with her narrative: A few momentary exceptions do not make a movement.
Southern Baptists didn’t change their position on the environment, despite the national newspapers and magazines which claimed six months ago that they had. Media hype surrounding a declaration on climate change did not reality make. In fact, after all the publicity, nothing changed materially for the common good. The situation actually worsened as the SBC hardened its ideological position against addressing global warming.
Another flaw in the narrative about evangelical voters shifting to the center is the centerpiece: mega-church pastor Rick Warren.
Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne pointed to him only last month as evidence that a revolution was taking place among Christian evangelicals. A 2004 endorser of President Bush, who now says that endorsement was the wrong thing to do, Warren does talk about more than five non-negotiable issues as the litmus test for conservative Christian voters.
Yet Warren told the Wall Street Journal after his church interviews with Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama that the notion that the evangelical vote “was up for grabs” was “overhyped.” Asked about the influence of the evangelical left, he answered by separating his forefinger from his thumb by an inch.
A third problem with the claim of a powerful emerging center apart from the Republican Party is the lack of real institutional power within the evangelical center to left.
The Christian Right has built mega-churches, massive radio audiences and muscular political-action machines. In addition to the SBC with its six seminaries and huge publishing house, Christian Right leaders like Pat Robertson and the deceased Jerry Falwell built influential colleges and indoctrinated decades of students.
Conversely, the so-called center and left evangelicals, as traditionally defined, have no comparable institutional power base. They do have some magazines and a number of letterhead organizations which hold press conferences. They do claim some large churches, but too often in those congregations theological diversity is too great and pastoral leadership is too soft to turn out hard votes.
Like so many of my fellow sojourners, I pray for a society where justice rolls down and irrigates the land in such a way that the poor are lifted up, the lame walk, the blind see, the earth receives its care, swords are hammered into plowshares and character becomes the defining quality instead of color.
Yet if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
If there is an evangelical shift from the Republican Party, one has a hard time seeing it in the Bible Belt with its tens of thousands of churches.
Praying for change shouldn’t be confused with declaring that prayers have been answered.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.