1. Are Evangelical Voters Still Conservative?
Last week, Beliefnet released the results of its new online poll which showed that although evangelical voters remain largely conservative, issues at the top of their agenda are increasingly aligned with those at the top of the progressive agenda. Although the poll was not scientific, its results reflect what many see as the changing face of the evangelical movement.
While a majority of self-described evangelicals said they remain committed to the Christian right leadership, they're recognizing the need to address issues like global warming, poverty, and torture. Most Christian right leaders have resisted this change, but they've yet to see a significant backlash from their constituents. The religious right leadership remains well-funded, well-organized, and committed to the same core issues from which they will not budge. And even evangelicals touted as "new" or "less conservative" remain committed to some of those core issues as well.
Herein lies one of the paradoxes of the poll: 65 percent of respondents said that Christian right leaders "sometimes or almost always represent their views." Of those respondents, an overwhelming number -- 80 percent -- "said Christian right leaders represent their views on defending religion in public life," and 63 percent "said those leaders represent their views on 'opposing gay marriage/gay rights.'" Yet a majority also seems to be breaking with that leadership on certain issues, with 60 percent saying "they favored a more progressive evangelical agenda focused more on protecting the environment, tackling HIV/AIDs, and alleviating poverty and less on abortion and homosexuality." Go figure.
Significantly, and consistent with more scientific polls, the respondents largely classified themselves as conservative; 47 percent self-identified as conservative, while only 14 percent self-identified as liberal. In a sign of theological conservatism, 84 percent described the Bible as the "inerrant word of God." But what does that mean politically? That the 84 percent all think homosexuality is an irredeemable sin, or that the Bible commands them to end poverty and global warming?
And to demonstrate that Democrats can't win when they strain to prove their Christian bona fides to the religious right leadership, Bishop Harry Jackson said this to me last week about Barack Obama: "I've got some real concerns about his faith and how he defines faith, because he's in one of the most liberal denominations in the country... they've got people there who don't believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. Some of the people in that organization are way out to lunch. He's hardly mainstream in his faith."
But who's out of the mainstream? Obama got a higher proportion, and a higher actual number of votes, from South Carolina voters who attend church at least weekly than Mike Huckabee did.
2. What Is the "New" Evangelical Agenda?
In a conference call with reporters last week, three evangelical leaders (and two Catholic leaders) laid out their hopes that President Bush would bring up their issues in his State of the Union address and "salvage" his moral legacy by calling for an end to poverty, torture, and the war in Iraq, and pledging action on climate change.
Since I wasn't holding my breath for Bush to meaningfully discuss these issues, much less lay out a plan to achieve any of those goals, I asked the participants whether they saw the Republican presidential candidates sticking to the old religious right rhetoric, or whether they were breaking out of it and discussing moral issues in new ways. The Rev. Ron Sider, who had called on Bush to address domestic poverty, and to pursue a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict (rejecting the branch of evangelicalism fixated on the Book of Revelation), said that Huckabee is "clearly a new kind of evangelical," an assessment that's been echoed in other quarters.
Noting that Huckabee hasn't been endorsed by much of the religious right leadership, but was nonetheless gaining a significant part of the evangelical vote, Sider showed how some evangelicals still buy into some of the Christian right issues while rejecting others. Sider dismissed the "Christian nation" mythology Huckabee has so heartily embraced, but nonetheless agreed with Huckabee's position that there should be a constitutional amendment defining legal marriage as strictly heterosexual.
So what constitutes "a new kind of evangelical"? Huckabee talks about combating climate change, yet advocates building more highways and offers murky proposals on improving public transportation. He expresses empathy for working and middle-class Americans, yet is blinkered by his (not) Fair Tax proposal. He's touted as a new breed of evangelical, yet he relishes the endorsement of Tim LaHaye, who used to speak at seminars for the John Birch Society; the accolades of John Hagee, who thinks government anti-poverty programs are satanic; and wishes David Barton, who is urging his followers to push Congress to pass House Res. 888, which would officially declare America a "Christian nation," could write our public school curricula.
There may be a new kind of evangelical out there, but Huckabee isn't it.
3. Meanwhile, back in the Kenneth Copeland studios...
Additional evidence that Huckabee does not represent a "new kind" of evangelical lies in his embrace of the prosperity gospel, which has been critiqued by Christians from all over the spectrum as contrary to Jesus' teachings and even a heretical, cultic distortion of scripture. Yet as I've been reporting at TAPPED, Huckabee has turned to Grassley target Kenneth Copeland for fundraising, and even, according to Copeland, has pledged to stand behind the televangelist. (Both Kenneth Copeland Ministries and the Huckabee campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)
So Huckabee has supported this televangelist who is under investigation by a senator of his own party. Copeland believes that God wants him to be rich, that born-again believers are entitled to great wealth, and that he's "a rich Jew backed by richer Jew." He's a televangelist who flies around in a $20 million jet and boasts that more than a billion dollars has flowed into his ministry since its inception, making him "a billionaire in the kingdom of God." Huckabee a "new kind" of evangelical? Huckabee a populist? Hardly.
4. How Many Democrats Are Evangelicals?
The Beliefnet poll showed that while 41 percent of respondents said they were Republican, nearly one-third said they were Democrats. Yet the firm that provides presidential primary exit-poll data to most major media outlets doesn't ask Democratic voters if they're evangelical. This weekend, the chief of staff to the Democratic National Committee, Leah Daughtry, who is also an ordained Pentecostal minister, issued a call for pollsters and exit pollsters to ask Democrats as well as Republicans whether they are evangelical.
In response to a separate request from a group of evangelical leaders urging the inclusion of the evangelical question to Democrats in exit polling, a spokesperson for the National Election Pool told the resource center Faith in Public Life, "We have limited real estate on our questionnaires. We choose the questions based on our internal editorial discussions. To protect the integrity of the process, we routinely do not talk publicly about what questions are on our surveys."
5. Just How Divided Is the Religious Right Vote?
As Super Tuesday draws near, here's a run-down on the latest endorsements -- and non-endorsements -- from the religious right:
The extremist American Right to Life Action, a new 527 which ran anti-Romney ads in Iowa and South Carolina, is excoriating Ann Coulter and other endorsers of Mitt Romney, among them anti-choice powerhouses James Bopp and Jay Sekulow. The National Right to Life Committee had endorsed Fred Thompson, and now says it's not going to endorse another candidate -- but is opposed to all the Democrats and Rudy Giuliani.
Not to be outdone, yet another anti-choice 527, RoeGone.org, is running its own anti-Romney ad. According to IRS records, the president of RoeGone.org is Janet Folger, the co-chair of Huckabee's Faith and Values Coalition.
The former executive director of the Christian Coalition has endorsed Romney.
The Family Research Council's Tony Perkins reveled in results of the caucuses in his home state of Louisiana, noting that "the top slate of delegates was uncommitted to any candidate, choosing rather to uphold traditional conservative values, which had life and family at their core." Reflecting what now appears to be the view of many top religious right leaders -- that Huckabee is soft on fiscal and national security issues -- Perkins added that "to close the deal, one of the Republican candidates must assemble a winning coalition of fiscal, social and defense conservatives."
What about McCain? Harry Jackson told me that "rank and file evangelicals" are "probably not" holding his "agents of intolerance" remark against him, but that "the old guard probably still remembers and probably is still concerned about the mercurial and unpredictable nature of McCain."
Evangelicals in Huckabee's own Southern Baptist Convention favor him on religious issues but think he's a lightweight on national security, immigration and fiscal issues. In any case, one thing is clear: they, like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, are against Giuliani, even if Huckabee were to be his running mate.
Doesn't look like they have anything to worry about.
Contact me at TAPthefundamentalist AT gmail DOT com.