2016 would appear to be the perfect moment to launch a revitalized evangelical left. Donald Trump, the most secular candidate in American history, has a special talent for violating standards of Christian virtue on issues ranging from sexual fidelity to welcoming the immigrant stranger. Many observers predict the fragmentation of an old religious right. Most evangelical leaders have quit defending Trump. Fewer rank-and-file evangelicals feel compelled to vote Republican out of identity politics, at least not if Trump headlines the party.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the graying of the religious right. I saw some of this evidence first hand during the three days I spent at Regent University last week. On Thursday morning I attended a taping of the 700 Club the morning after the third presidential debate. In the broadcast, a 87-year-old Robertson rehearsed old culture war talking points and announced a Trump rally on campus to be held on Saturday. But it isn’t the good old days anymore. Viewership has declined, and the studio audience was anemic. It consisted of me, a grandmother from Indiana on vacation to the Christian Broadcasting Network, and a forty-year-old fanboy who attends every broadcast.
Robertson is just one example of a group of culture warriors growing older. In fact, lists of evangelical Trump supporters feature a disproportionate number of men with “former” or “retired” before their names. When I polled one of my classes yesterday, not a single student had heard of Pat Robertson. Even many students at Regent itself have a profound ambivalence toward their aging leader. Based on informal conversations and unscientific observation, this is true not only at Regent, but also at Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s Liberty University and Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse. As the group of dissenting Liberty students wrote in a letter to Falwell, “Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.”
By contrast, Hillary Clinton would appear to be a palatable enough candidate. Though reticent about public displays of faith, she grew up active in a Methodist church in the suburbs of Chicago. And she has embodied the kind of hard work and civic virtue that evangelicals have loudly championed. “It takes a village” squares nicely with the communitarian sensibilities of a religion with roots in the East.
On the surface, then, the pitting of these two candidates would seem to bode well for a revitalized evangelical left. Conditions are ripe for evangelicals to shake loose from the old coalition with the Republican Party that dates back decades—and to embrace new approaches to growing social inequalities and pressing environmental problems. And in fact, many of the usual suspects have endorsed Clinton. Ron Sider did so in Christianity Today last month. Sojourners seems to be clearly for Clinton, as does a new group called Public Faith. A broader Christian Left also seems to embody a renaissance of activism. William Barber and the “Moral Monday” movement are seeking to address a wide range of issues related to unfair treatment and discrimination such as restriction of voting rights and cutting funding for Medicaid, and welfare and education.
And yet the evangelical left, at least as represented by the organizations and personalities that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s, has been rather impotent.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s difficult October helps explain why. The student ministry is roiled by controversy over same-sex marriage. Many more are still concerned about abortion. Despite being clearly progressive on #blacklivesmatter, poverty, and other non-sexual issues, many evangelicals have found themselves disqualified from participation on the left. At debate watch last week at my institution, evangelical students were tracking with Clinton—until she began defending partial-birth abortion. A conservative sexuality has left moderates politically homeless.
Where have all the pro-life Democrats gone? They’ve been bounced from the party. Doubling down, the Democratic Party doesn’t even use the language of “safe, legal, and rare” anymore. A triumphant celebration of rights supersedes any acknowledgement that abortion is a very sad and often tragic reality for all involved. There is no room for other narratives. There is no space for conversation.
They’re finishing the job started decades ago. As I described in Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, Democrats, who were arguably more pro-life than Republicans, in 1980 adopted an explicit pro-choice position and began to strictly enforce the new orthodoxy. Formerly pro-life, Ted Kennedy had declared to a Massachusetts constituent in 1971 that “wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized—the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.” Within a decade, Kennedy reversed course. Other pro-life politicians with evangelical or Catholic backgrounds such as John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Mario Cuomo, Bob Kerrey, Dick Durbin, and Bill Clinton, also become leading defenders of the right to choose. In fact, five of the contenders for the Democratic nomination in 1988—Jesse Jackson, Joe Biden, Paul Simon, Dick Gephardt, and Al Gore—had flipped to a pro-choice position under party pressure.
This putsch, as political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio put it, poisoned many Christians’ perception of the Democratic Party. Regularly attending Catholics, a key constituency in the New Deal coalition, gradually but substantially left the Party. So did evangelicals. According to political scientist Lyman Kellstedt, the Democratic Party outpolled the Republican Party by a margin of 59 to 31 percent among evangelicals in the 1960s. By the mid-1980s, the Republican Party enjoyed a 47 to 41 percent lead. Evangelicals flocked to “God’s party” as the fault lines in the new realignment grew larger.
By the late 1980s, there was no place for progressive evangelicals who embraced a “consistent life ethic.” Antagonistic toward the Republican platform and antagonized by Democratic leaders, they were left without a political home. Which is the way it remains, even in a moment when the evangelical left should be surging.