The prestigious magazine The Economist recently did a significant piece on the political and cultural attitudes of US evangelicals. Under the title “Evangelical Voters: Lift Every Voice”, it argued that “Growing numbers of non-white evangelicals and changing attitudes among younger Christians are reshaping the politics of American Christianity.” The article offers a number of examples of evangelicals who run contrary to existing stereotypes by their liberal activism, and explores the prospects for “a leftward turn for American Christianity.”
Now, you have probably seen an argument more or less like this quite a bit recently, and you will see a great many more in the months coming up the November election. I think that approach suffers from an over-simple view of evangelicals in the recent past. If you start with the stereotype that all evangelical politics in bygone years could be epitomized by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, then obviously things look much more diverse today. For one thing, such arguments commonly define the term “evangelical” as synonymous with white believers, ignoring the large African-American and Latino communities. And as the article points out, the case of Jimmy Carter demonstrates that left-liberal evangelicals are nothing new. Incidentally, it is bizarre to see a young evangelical listed here as odd and counter-intuitive because she is highly involved in NGO relief work in Africa: why on earth is that regarded as “leftward” or atypical?
But the article does make good points about possible forces driving evangelicals of different shades away from the Republican coalition, and possibly back towards the Democrats. One of course is Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Immigration issues weigh heavily on Latinos, who would otherwise gravitate to the party preaching moral and sexual conservatism. It is striking to see the Latino evangelical constituency estimated at a potent ten million. More generally, the Economist also strikes another warning note about broader trends in American religious attitudes:
“In the last half of the 20th century, membership of evangelical churches boomed while more traditional church attendance declined; today one-quarter of Americans aged 18-29 (and 16.1% of all Americans) are unaffiliated with any faith. Being unaffiliated is not the same as being atheist or agnostic, but it does suggest a waning of evangelical institutional authority, just as traditional authority in the old-established churches began crumbling several decades ago.”
“American Christianity—much like both America and Christianity themselves—is fundamentally neither of the left nor the right, but is capacious enough for all comers.”