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Democrats and evangelicals again

I wrote on this theme some time ago, responding in part to a previous article by the tireless Amy Sullivan, who is at it again. This time she argues that some evangelicals can be won over by stressing environmental issues--"creation care," so to speak, or stewardship, if you’re just a little old-fashioned.

There are at least two things wrong with her picture. First, she virtually concedes that environmental issues can largely be tie-breakers, assuming all other things are equal (two pro-life or two pro-choice candidates, for example). Rick Santorum should be worried, but how many other Republicans will be facing credibly pro-life Democratic opponents this fall? (Michael Barone surely knows; I don’t, but I suspect that there can’t be more than a handful in House and Senate races.) The folks, it seems to me, who have more to worry about, given Sullivan’s own argument are pro-choice Republicans, who can’t count on abortion to differentiate themselves from their Democratic opponents.

Second, in her effort to persuade Democrats to get serious about the evangelical vote, Sullivan regales us with stories of Democratic ham-handedness.

Whether Democrats take advantage of this turning point remains to be seen. At the local level, they have made a good start, with unprecedented efforts by state parties to reach out to evangelicals. Following the example of newly elected Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, some Democratic candidates have launched ads on religious radio stations, and state party leaders have met with evangelical and Catholic leaders to "clear the air." In some cases, these gatherings represent the first time the two groups have ever sat down with each other. While Democrats know they won’t win over conservative evangelicals, they realize there is an advantage to improving their image in the broader religious community. "You don’t have to convert everybody; you just have to take the edge off," one state party leader explained. "Now that they’ve met me, they can see I don’t have two horns and a tail."

Unfortunately, this enthusiasm in the states has not yet been matched by support from the national party. In part, that’s because many professional Democrats continue to believe that evangelicals aren’t "their" voters--or they confuse evangelicals with fundamentalists and so assume the whole demographic is out of reach. These assumptions may explain the general tone-deafness with which some leaders approach evangelicals. In the summer of 2005, an unnamed party official explained Democratic outreach to evangelicals this way to U.S. News and World Report: "We’re dealing with a serious bloc of people, not just crazies with big Bibles." Imagine Ken Mehlman explaining Republican outreach to black voters by saying, "These are not just lazy high school dropouts."

When Howard Dean attempted to make things better in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he just made them worse. Tellingly, if unintentionally, he distinguished Democrats from Christians: "We [Democrats] have an enormous amount in common with the Christian community and particularly with the evangelical Christian community." And he bobbled the answer to repeated questions about the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) evangelical outreach efforts. First, Dean responded by mentioning that his chief of staff, Leah Daughtry, is a Pentecostal minister. Then, sensing that was insufficient, he named some black and Hispanic religious leaders with whom he had met as part of a "vigorous outreach program." Officially, the DNC has a name for this program: the "Faith in Action Initiative." Alas, that initiative--which Daughtry describes as a way "to help state parties develop faith outreach programs"--has done little to actually help state efforts, at least according to the handful of party chairs I called. And, while the party has hired a staffer to oversee outreach to black churches and is searching for another to meet with Catholics, there are no plans to hire a counterpart for white evangelicals.

I’m tempted also to revisit the work I did for my Patrick Henry posts, calling attention to this AmSpec piece, written by incoming PHC president Graham Walker, which on some level echoes worries I’ve heard voiced in other contexts about the "liberal" tendencies of elite evangelical colleges: without a substantial intellectual tradition of their own, they’re more susceptible to being influenced by "the culture."

This leads me to ask two questions. First, are the moderate noises that Amy Sullivan discerns a result of the "evolution" of some portion of evangelical higher education? My friends at Touchstone might have a thing or two to say about that.

Second, ought the folks at Patrick Henry to be a little concerned about perhaps losing touch with the Reformed and even (shudder!) the Roman Catholic traditions that might give greater intellectual heft and stability to their conservatism?

A last point and then I’m done: over at Mere Comments, James M. Kushiner and Russell Moore wonder how much influence the National Association of Evangelicals really has.

Discussions - 1 Comment

I think it’s pretty clear that large swathes of evangelical higher education tilts quite strongly to the left, with the exception of abortion and (less clearly) homosexuality. Recall the protests over George W. Bush’s commencement speech at Calvin, the various articles from profs at Wheaton, Pepperdine, and the like explaining why they couldn’t vote for Bush in 2004 (though they usually said they couldn’t vote for Kerry either). In a sense, this shouldn’t be surprising - evangelical colleges are populated by people who received their PhDs from the same places as everyone else in higher education and are subject to the same subtle winnowing processes therein.

If the Left would ever ditch its worship of sexual liberation, I suspect many elite (and eventually many of the rest of the) evangelicals would be quite comfortable among the Dems. Of course, they won’t ever do that, so I suspect that Sullivan’s thesis is more wishful thinking - along the lines of the perennial "trade unions are making a comeback" articles in the NYT - than substantive analysis.

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