Kudos to Ayelish McGarvey for her article "Reaching the Choir" in the April American Prospect.
In an insightful and very helpful discussion of American evangelical Christian voters, McGarvey gets right many things that nearly everyone in the mainstream media — and nearly every Democratic strategist — gets wrong. McGarvey rightly ridicules Morley Safer for gullibly embracing the self-promoting, arbitrarily self-appointed spokesmen of the fundamentalist right as representative and typical stand-ins for all evangelicals. McGarvey instead talks to people like Steven Waldman, John Green and Christian Smith — experts who have seriously studied evangelicalism. She talks to Jimmy Carter, Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo — three indispensable voices for understanding progressive evangelicals. And she makes stops at Baylor and Wheaton — hallmark institutions of evangelicalism.
GRTWT, but here in summary are some of the things I think McGarvey gets right:
1. Conservative theology does not correlate to conservative politics.
Compelled by evangelicalism's conservative theology but averse to the right wing's intolerance and lack of charity toward the poor, they occupy a curious political middle ground. Every four years they independently evaluate the state of the union through the lens of a Jesus-centered faith. But their concerns extend beyond the conservative morality issues of abortion and gay marriage to progressive matters of social justice, America's role in the world and care for the environment.
2. Concern for the poor — "the least of these," "orphans and widows in their distress" — is of special concern for many evangelical Christians.
3. The majority of evangelical Christians don't like the harsh dogma of the religious right.
This bloc lacks the fervor of traditionalists like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell; indeed, most of its members are offended by the dogmatic and self-righteous antics of leaders of the religious right.
… Smith's research reveals that nearly 70 percent of conservative Christians do not even identify with or support the Christian right.
4. Faith is vitally important to evangelical Christians — shaping their lives.
Evangelical Christianity is a mighty force in the personal lives of nearly 25 percent of Americans today. … Evangelical churches are flourishing … Over and above all else, such Christians believe in a converting, transformative, and deeply personal relationship with a living Jesus Christ. Theirs is an abiding faith in the resurrected Christ as their lord and savior; only through him is eternal salvation achieved. Most evangelicals read the Bible as the inerrant and inspired word of God, trusting that all spiritual truth is found within its pages. And they believe that their faith calls them to lives of service, especially through evangelism — spreading the gospel, that is — and mission work.
(That's an astute summary of core evangelical beliefs. McGarvey even slips into evangelicalese — the subcultural jargon that Bush's speechwriter Michael Gerson is so skilled at slipping into presidential speeches.)
Secular liberals have long misunderstood the kaleidoscopic diversity of American evangelicalism, thereby granting polarizing figures like Falwell, [Tim] LaHaye and James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, too much credit as spokesmen. The media do no better, commonly lumping all conservative Protestants together under the banner of the religious right. This often pejorative labeling blurs the lines between distinct — and sometimes competing — religious movements such as charismatic Christianity, Pentecostalism and fundamentalism.
6. Abortion politics is a central issue for most evangelicals, but not necessarily a litmus test.
The one issue that still tethers many moderate evangelicals to the Republican Party is abortion. The GOP uses abortion as "a political football," as Jim Wallis puts it, while the Democrats' inflexibility on abortion is the single issue blocking many freestyle evangelicals from joining the party ranks. "The Democrats should at least have an open tent where people could be pro-life Catholics, for instance, and still be Democrats," Wallis argues. "Pro-life and pro-choice voters could unite together in a real effort to reduce teen pregnancy, reform the adoption process and offer alternatives to women backed into difficult and dangerous choices."
Abortion raises serious moral qualms for most evangelicals — but that does not mean they demand, or even are comfortable with, a starkly anti-abortion political agenda. What they require from political leaders more than anything else on this issue is the sense that those leaders view this issue with moral seriousness. Bill Clinton's formula — "safe, legal and rare" — won over many evangelical voters. That could still be a winning formula for Democratic candidates.
(Note that the abortion rate among evangelical Christians is indistinguishable from the abortion rate of the rest of the population. That may tell us more about likely actual voting behavior than any issue-oriented polling does.)
7. Both Democrats and Republicans misread and misunderstand the voting patterns of many evangelicals.
Late in 2001, Karl Rove dropped by the American Enterprise Institute to share his thoughts on the Bush presidency and electoral strategy … Rove lamented that the Bush campaign had failed to rally all corners of the party faithful, particularly some 4 million white evangelicals, fundamentalists and Pentecostals who stayed home on election day. "[Y]et they are obviously part of our base," he declared.
But that might be an overstatement. … Rove could be taking a little too much for granted.
Let's hope so.