Do Christians follow their leaders?

pat2 The Washington Post acknowledged yesterday that contrary to its pronunciation 14 years ago, evangelicals are not “easily led.”

OK, I made that up, but not really.

As recently as seven weeks ago, The Washington Post implied that evangelical voters followed the political dictates of their leaders. After Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani and Senator Sam Brownback backed John McCain, the newspaper concluded that evangelical voters were similarly divided. After all, if evangelical shepherds are divided, so too must their flock:

The endorsements of two Christian conservative leaders yesterday underscored the fractures that remain among evangelical voters less than two months before the first votes will be cast in the Republican presidential nominating contest

Yesterday The Washington Post reported that in fact, evangelical voters are not like a bunch of sheep. After talking to dozens of voters in Iowa, reporters Perry Bacon and Michael D. Shear, the latter of who had co-written the story above, found that evangelicals paid their leaders’ views little mind:

many of the voters interviewed Sunday said they were not influenced heavily by the views of national religious leaders or their local pastors.

Over the past two months, endorsements by evangelist Pat Robertson of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), and by conservative Catholic Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have done little to raise the candidates’ fortunes, and former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) has struggled here despite an initial embrace of his candidacy by national Christian activists. Iowa pastors who backed Huckabee were largely following, rather than leading, their congregations.

On Saturday, the Rev. Morris Hurd, chairman of the Iowa Christian Alliance, endorsed Romney, even though the alliance is formally neutral. Sunday, some of the people at Hurd’s 200-member church in eastern Iowa, West Hill United Methodist in Burlington, had read the news, but they were not swayed.

So the Post has concluded that at the least, today evangelicals are not easily led. That’s a start.

But it won’t do to say that evangelical leaders influence voters not at all. Clearly, evangelical leaders do influence them. How else to explain the development below? (The news was first reported by Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic Monthly.)

On Friday, three national religious leaders backing Huckabee — Tim LaHaye, Michael Farris and Rick Scarborough — convened a conference call with Iowa pastors to urge them to use Sunday’s services to drive up participation by Christian voters, who polls suggest favor the former Arkansas governor by comfortable margins.

Perhaps the Huckabee campaign is foolish to employ this tactic, but it sounds reasonable. Evangelical leaders can affect turnout rates; if the pastor urges his congregants to vote, more will do so.

This phenomenon is not limited to evangelicals, by the way. I found a corollary to this in my own research about Catholics. In examining why one county in western Pennsylvania has switched on the presidential level from Democrat to Republican, I discovered that some Catholic voters were influenced by the outspoken views of their leaders on hot-button cultural issues.

Here’s my recommendation, although it’s not original: Reporters should call professors or experts in religion and politics — and not just John Green! Expecting a reporter to call a scholar while in the heat of a presidential campaign is surely too much to ask. But it doesn’t seem too much to ask that of reporters when they are cooling their proverbial heels.

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  • Palladio

    Happy New Year.

    Excellent piece.

    Scholars may begin with the term _evangelical_. Used loosely, as usual, it has little or no meaning. Considering the many Protestant denominations, including those calling themselves non-denominational or Bible Christians, scholars have their work cut out for them

  • Christopher W. Chase

    Mark Stricherz wrote:

    In examining why one county in western Pennsylvania has switched on the presidential level from Democrat to Republican,

    The term is Democratic, as in the Democratic Party. Not “Democrat.”

  • Jerry

    A bit off topic but it does relate in the more general sense of how often Church leaders statements are heeded.

    I ran across a link http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/do_catholic_women_get_abortions_more_frequently.html to a Guttmacher study which showed that at least as of a few years ago Catholic women were slightly more likely to have abortions than Protestants. I suspect that over the past few years that may have narrowed but still it show that many don’t listen. What a (non) surprise.

  • csmith

    I think the really interesting layers in these stories have more to do with who (or what) really constitutes an evangelical leader. It seems to me that the press often anoints someone as a “national evangelical leader” (or some of these so-called leaders are anointing themselves), and then wonders why herds of pastors and evangelicals don’t blindly follow them.

    I had to look up two of the Washington Post’s so-called “national religious leaders backing Huckabee” to even see who they are (Michael Farris and Rick Scarborough) and, last time I checked Tim LaHaye was best known as an author, not a “national religious leader”.

    As for some of the others mentioned, Pat Robertson (and Dobson, though he’s not mentioned here) seem to be more talk show host than “national religious leader” and Paul Weyrich and Gary Bauer are more political organizer than national leader.

    Certainly a few pastors may be influenced by some of these “leaders” but I’ve never heard a single evangelical pastor indicate that LaHaye, Robertson, Weyrich, Bauer, Farris or Scarborough (or any of the host of other so-called evangelical leaders) are even on their list of respected leaders.

  • Palladio

    I’m not so sure, Jerry, that a ‘study’ nearly ten years old from a pro-abortion institute is evidence for anything, least of all for the fidelity of Catholics. Besides, Catholics don’t have leaders. They have the Church.

  • Julia

    I second Palladio and add that it’s not clear whether “Catholic” in the study only means women actually practicing the faith and going to weekly Mass or whether it also includes folks who were proverbially “raised Catholic” but don’t really live their faith.

  • Bryan

    Farris’ support of Huckabee isn’t new, he provided Huckabee’s supporters with buses that help Huckabee do so well in the Straw Poll that put him in the eyes of the media.