The FundamentaList (No. 61)

1. Democrats' Lovefest With Evangelicals One of the Hottest Stories of the Year

The Democrats' new focus on the country's devout was the second-hottest religion-news story of 2008, according to the Religion News Service. Based on a survey of members of the Religion Newswriters' Association, Democrats’ outreach, particularly to evangelicals and the megachurch pastor Rick Warren, was edged out for top honors only by Barack Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Time's David Van Biema placed the same story seventh in his top 10 religion-stories list, noting that "powerful pastors like Florida's Joel Hunter and California's Rick Warren are pressing the culture beyond the narrow concerns of the religious Right."

Obama has lavished praise on Warren, and the liberal group Faith in Public Life, originally a project of the Center for American Progress, pushed for the August presidential forum at his church. Obama prayed with Hunter on election night, hours before his acceptance speech in Grant Park. Although they have strived to distance themselves from the political elites of the religious right, both Warren and Hunter are self-described conservatives, and their views are much closer to religious-right dogma than they are to the heart of the Democratic Party.

The Obama campaign also had quieter, more behind-the-scenes outreach to religious groups more likely to vote Democratic, like mainline Protestants. But the outreach that got all the attention, and that the Democratic Party wanted to get all the attention, was the outreach to white evangelicals -- the demographic least likely to vote Democratic.

2. Defining the Religious Right, Center, and Left

In order to appeal to evangelicals, Democrats are redefining the acceptable parameters of talking faith in political campaigns. I have argued that in focusing on "new" evangelicals, Democrats were ignoring (or at least taking for granted) other religious voters who embrace reproductive and LGBT rights, which Warren and Hunter both reject. Democrats' outreach to the conservative evangelicals is aimed at winning elections. But it also serves negative purposes; it helps make religious talk an expected part of political campaigns, and it gears that religious talk toward an evangelical audience. Perhaps worst, Democrats frequently bend fundamental progressive principles, particularly LGBT and reproductive rights, when speaking to evangelical audiences.

In a new piece at Public Eye, the journal of the indefatigable watchdog of right-wing movements, Political Research Associates, Chip Berlet and Frederick Clarkson (whose book, Dispatches from the Religious Left, has prompted discussion of what’s wrong with the Democrats’ religious outreach) argue that the "new" evangelicals now seek the same power in the Democratic Party that the "old" evangelicals (i.e., the religious right) have sought to wield in the Republican Party for the past 30 years.

But the Democratic Party's base is much broader and more diverse than the Republican base, and the evangelicals are a far less essential component -- if they are a component at all. (About a quarter of white evangelicals are Democrats; that is not who the Democratic Party is aiming for.) Berlet and Clarkson lay out extensive polling data to demonstrate that Obama did not win over white evangelicals in any greater numbers than he won over any other demographic -- in other words, as I've maintained on these pages, Obama won across so many voter groups that one cannot argue that (a) the evangelicals swayed the election in his favor or (b) that evangelicals shifted any more significantly than any other group of voters did.

3. Sick of Rick: The Never-Ending Quest to Discern Purpose-Driven Thinking

Rick Warren, cloaked in his public image as a “new” kind of evangelical, took aim at non-evangelical Christians this week, saying in an interview with Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman that “social gospel” Christians believe that they "don't really need to care about Jesus' personal salvation any more. You don't really have to care about redemption, the cross, repentance. All we need to do is redeem the social structures of society and if we make those social structures better then the world will be a better place. In many ways it was just Marxism in Christian clothing."

The Beliefnet interview led associate dean of Religious Life at Princeton University Paul Raushenbush to write on his blog that he is "sick of Rick." About Warren's boasts of awakening evangelicals to God calling them to help the poor, Raushenbush writes "duh!" and asks the celebrity preacher "to have a little humility about the work of his church on AIDS ('my church has done more than any other church helping people with AIDS' -- please! Try talking to Glide Church in the Tenderloin area in San Francisco)."

4. Blinded by the Green Light

Last week, Richard Cizik, one of the stars of this "new" evangelical movement, was forced out of his position as the National Association of Evangelicals' chief lobbyist because of his intemperate remarks -- he later said he misspoke -- endorsing civil unions and the "broader agenda" of abortion-reduction rhetoric. Cizik also admitted that he voted for Barack Obama despite the president-elect's heretical position on reproductive choice.

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a Cizik critic, laid the blame on environmentalism, one of the causes Cizik has championed. On Saturday, Perkins said on his radio show that Cizik's endorsement of civil unions was a "risk you face when you walk through that green door of environmentalism and global warming, you risk being blinded by that green light and losing your sense of direction. … I hope they [the NAE] will get back on the right path and represent true biblical values when it comes to public policy."

5. Twitter Me This: Can the Religious Right Do Social Networking?

Conservatives now love Twitter, and according to a list maintained by Republican strategist Michael Leahy, a number of the top conserva-tweeters identify as Christians and homeschoolers. Clocking in at 13, ahead of some real Republican Party bigwigs, is Tabitha Hale, who also blogs at Pink Elephant Pundit and is part of the Ning social network Smart Girl Politics. Are the women of the Smart Girl Politics network the future Phyllis Schaflys and Beverly LaHayes?

Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee is aiming for Obama-style organizing, forming a National Volunteer Team for Huck PAC. "Our goal is to identify volunteers nationwide, organize into local groups and then assist Huck PAC endorsed candidates," Huckabee wrote on his blog. He would also like "to have at least one Huck PAC group leader in every county in the nation by the end of 2009." Would come in handy in 2012, too, wouldn't it?

Contact me at tapthefundamentalist at gmail dot com.

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