The past few weeks have seen a flood of commentary — some thoughtful, some fearfully reflexive — regarding the recent election and its implications for the future of the Republican Party and/or white evangelicalism.
Both institutions face the same problems. Both have become dominated by white male perspectives and have come to serve primarily the interests of those who share that perspective. Both have attained and maintained power by marginalizing everyone else — everyone who is not a straight, white, Christian male. This has been done through policy, through rhetoric that paints others as illegitimate and alien, and through the simple cluelessness that comes from not hearing and not listening to any other voices.
So while I’ve been reading a raft of articles about the future of the GOP and another raft of articles about the future of evangelicalism, those two streams of commentary have really been all about the same thing. They discuss identical concerns and obstacles and propose identical sets of possible responses. Read any article pondering a way forward for the Republican Party and everything it says can be applied to white evangelicalism. And vice versa. (That’s not surprising, really, since over the past several decades white evangelicalism has redefined itself as, primarily, a partisan subsidiary of the Republican Party.)
Tony Jones illustrates this parallel with a brilliant post in which he “remixes” David Simon’s post-election essay. Simon’s original post — “Barack Obama and the Death of Normal” — wasn’t concerned at all with evangelicalism or the church. He was writing only about politics and the future of the Republican Party. But as Tony’s remix shows, every word of Simon’s piece applies equally well to the identity crisis now facing the American church in general, and white evangelicalism in particular.
Rear guard actions will be fought at every
politicaltheological crossroad. But make no mistake: Change is a motherfucker when you run from it. And right now, the conservative movement in America is fleeing from dramatic change that is certain and immutable. A man of color is president for the second time, and this happened despite a struggling economic climate and a national spirit of general discontent. He has been returned to office over the specific objections of the mass of white men. He has instead been re-elected by women, by people of color, by homosexuals, by people of varying religions or no religion whatsoever. Behold the New Jerusalem. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a white man, of course. There’s nothing wrong with being anything. That’s the point.
This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of
Americathe American Church is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politicallytheologically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votespeople are going to be counted, more of them with each electionliturgical year. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas.And those wishing to hold national officeprominent pulpits in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against the next, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycleliturgical year, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizensChristians who demand to control their own bodies.
Regardless of what happens with his second term, Barack Obama’s great victory has already been won: We are all the other now, in some sense.
Special interestsChristian? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interestsChristians. And now, normalevangelical isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normalevangelical. That word, too, means less with every moment.
The two subjects can’t really be separated here. Even those who imagine they’re speaking exclusively of either the Republican Party or of white evangelicalism are simultaneously also discussing the other as well. That’s partly because the two institutions have become so inextricably linked, but it’s also partly because they are both facing the same social and demographic changes — because they both exist in the same world and both must face the ways in which that world is changing around them.
Bob Smietana, the excellent religion reporter for The Tennessean, doesn’t make any distinction between these two subjects in his recent article, “Election signals America’s cultural shift as white evangelicals lose power“:
Since the day Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, white Christians have considered themselves the home team in American politics.
As the dominant social group, they’ve shaped the country’s moral and political culture for nearly 400 years.
But the recent presidential election is a sign that those days may be over, a prospect that’s encouraging or terrifying, depending on which side people are on.
For some, the change leads to fear that America is no longer a Christian nation. For others, it’s an opportunity to separate faith from the quest for political power.
The trend is fueled by simple demographics, said Robert Jones, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Religion Research Institute. White Christians are simply too old and too few in number to control the outcome of a nationwide election.
His research shows 69 percent of senior citizens are white and either evangelical, Catholic, or mainline Protestants, and many voted for Romney. Those same groups are only a quarter of all 30-year-olds.
“Romney’s coalition looks like senior America,” Jones said. “Running up big totals among white Christians and expecting them to take you over the top is not a strategy for victory nationwide.”
Post-election, some in that group are downplaying the results, saying their side lost because of bad tactics, not bad ideas. Others say their leaders are too focused on politics and the culture war and not enough on living their faith. Few want to give up the idea of letting Christian ideals shape politics, but most acknowledge they are in for a long struggle.
Or, as Mark Silk writes, “Romney’s religious coalition should spook the GOP even more than I thought.”
I’ll be following that “long struggle” here, with its ongoing re-evaluation of tactics and ideas by both the Republican Party and the old guard of white evangelicalism. And as we follow that, keep in mind that to speak of one is always to speak of the other. Whether within the party or within the church, the same battles and arguments are taking place and it’s not possible, or necessary, to separate them.