Reaching to the Choir

In early February, 60 minutes' Morley Safer portrayed white evangelical Christians as the carnies of American Protestantism. Nine million viewers tuned in and saw shots of vast "megachurch" congregations swaying hypnotically and raising their hands in song. Tacky cinematic renderings of a fiery Armageddon added some dramatic tension. The slick ringmaster of these goings-on, of course, was the Reverend Tim LaHaye, the famous apocalyptic entrepreneur and co-author of the wildly popular Left Behind novels. (The series depicts the end of the world as prophesized in the Book of Revelation.)

Safer eventually turned his attention to Washington, where he declared that "evangelical ... beliefs have already reshaped American politics." As the visages of George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, and John Ashcroft flitted across the screen, the message was clear: The Republican Party has God on its side.

Except that this year, a considerable group of evangelicals just might swing the vote -- in favor of the Democrats.

Meet the "freestyle evangelicals." Compelled by evangelicalism's conservative theology but averse to the right wing's intolerance and lack of charity toward the poor, they occupy a curious political middle ground. Every four years they independently evaluate the state of the union through the lens of a Jesus-centered faith. But their concerns extend beyond the conservative morality issues of abortion and gay marriage to progressive matters of social justice, America's role in the world, and care for the environment. The sociologist Stephen Hart describes Christian faith as comprising a set of elemental moral "building blocks" that believers "assemble" in countless combinations to construct their social ethics. Freestyle evangelicals have neither an exclusively Democratic nor Republican worldview; they say they often find themselves in the tiresome position of electing officials who will do the least amount of damage rather than the most good. As one believer told the Prospect, "I am a political moderate, not despite my theological conservatism but because of it."

The Bush presidency's extremism has left many moderate believers looking to the Democrats. Jim Wallis is a progressive evangelical and editor of Sojourners magazine. In a December New York Times op-ed, he challenged Democratic presidential contenders to charge fearlessly onto the moral high ground. "How a candidate deals with poverty is a religious issue, and the Bush administration's failure to support poor working families should be named as a religious failure," he wrote. "Neglect of the environment is a religious issue. Fighting pre-emptive wars based on false claims is a religious issue.

"True faith results in a compassionate concern for those on the margins. ... Allowing the right to decide what is a religious issue would be both a moral and political tragedy."

Jonathan Eastvold, 26, is a lifelong Republican and conservative Christian who attended Wheaton College, the premier evangelical institution in the country and alma mater of the Reverend Billy Graham. Eastvold voted for Bush in 2000 but became an avid supporter of Wesley Clark during the Democratic primaries. "The more I've thought about politics, the more discontent I've become with the facile [relationship] between theological conservatism and political conservatism," he wrote on the Christians for Clark blog. "[I]n fact, [I] spend most of my time discovering that a consistent reading of the Bible leaves me at odds with the GOP establishment -- whether we are talking about policies toward the poor, the environment, foreign policy, or even -- perish the thought in light of the last decade of GOP rhetoric -- presidential character."

His posting received enthusiastic "amens" from other Christians fed up with the Bush presidency. "Anyone who really reads the New Testament ... knows ... that Jesus' teachings are LIBERAL!" exclaimed one.

Freestyle evangelicals -- the term was recently coined by Steven Waldman, editor of the interfaith Web site Beliefnet -- defy the conventional wisdom about fundamentalist Christians. They are mostly white suburbanites in the South, Midwest, and Northwest. Many attend nondenominational megachurches, and their children go to public schools. They number between 8 million and 10 million and comprise 30 percent to 40 percent of the total evangelical vote -- roughly the same number as the most hypertraditional evangelicals, the core of the Christian right.

The freestyles helped usher Jimmy Carter into office in 1976 and gave Bill Clinton 55 percent of their vote in both 1992 and 1996. But four years ago, dissatisfied with a party marred by presidential scandal, they changed course and voted for George W. Bush by a 10-point margin. "This amounted to a shift of almost a million votes. ... [M]ore importantly, it was concentrated in key states such as Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Florida," wrote John Green, a political scientist and the director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron.

Bush campaigned as a moderate with a "compassionate conservative" agenda that attracted Christian voters who firmly believe in the transformative effects of religious conversion. And like Clinton and Carter before him, Bush effortlessly laced his remarks with the parlance of the born-again: During an early presidential debate in Iowa, for example, he famously named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher, adding, "When you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart, it changes your life." Call that spiritual red meat for the party faithful.

But this election year, many freestyle evangelicals' votes are up for grabs. This bloc lacks the fervor of traditionalists like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell; indeed, most of its members are offended by the dogmatic and self-righteous antics of leaders of the religious right. These believers might be concerned about gay marriage and abortion, but they will not be found picketing outside the Supreme Court anytime soon.

Neither are freestyle evangelicals wilting lilies, abandoning their faith in the face of an aggressively secular mainstream culture. Rather, their beliefs require that they show tolerance and respect in a diverse society. Christian Smith is a professor and associate chair of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want. He explained it this way in his book: "[Many evangelicals believe] Jesus' teachings assumed that his followers would always be a minority surrounded by a plurality of nonbelievers, whom they should not try to dominate, but should love and serve for God's sake."

Evangelical Christianity is a mighty force in the personal lives of nearly 25 percent of Americans today. While mainline Protestant denominations continue to shrink, evangelical churches are flourishing, thanks in part to members' high birthrates and successes at passing the faith on to their children. Contrary to secular conventional wisdom, evangelicalism is highly individualistic: Over and above all else, such Christians believe in a converting, transformative, and deeply personal relationship with a living Jesus Christ. Theirs is an abiding faith in the resurrected Christ as their lord and savior; only through him is eternal salvation achieved. Most evangelicals read the Bible as the inerrant and inspired word of God, trusting that all spiritual truth is found within its pages. And they believe that their faith calls them to lives of service, especially through evangelism -- spreading the gospel, that is -- and mission work. But that is about where the commonalities end.

Secular liberals have long misunderstood the kaleidoscopic diversity of American evangelicalism, thereby granting polarizing figures like Falwell, LaHaye, and James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, too much credit as spokesmen. The media do no better, commonly lumping all conservative Protestants together under the banner of the religious right. This often pejorative labeling blurs the lines between distinct -- and sometimes competing -- religious movements such as charismatic Christianity, Pentecostalism, and fundamentalism. Further, Smith's research reveals that nearly 70 percent of conservative Christians do not even identify with or support the Christian right. But news stories like the one on 60 Minutes perpetuate the idea of an evangelical monolith hungry for political power and marked by intolerance and anti-intellectualism. Ergo, it is not surprising that many Democratic politicians do their best to distance themselves from the very word "evangelical."

But they should be studying the nuances, because the potential for Democratic votes there is, in fact, strong. The only two Democratic presidents of the past 35 years, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were both intimately familiar with evangelicalism. And both, Carter especially, infused political issues with a strong dose of moral imperative rooted in religious faith. Some of the most powerful movements in the progressive tradition -- those promoting abolition, child-labor laws, and civil rights -- were fueled by religious zeal. Yet today's liberalism operates in an almost entirely secular sphere of influence. "Just as there are religious fundamentalists with too much sway in the Republican Party, there are secular fundamentalists who have way too much influence in the Democratic Party," says Jim Wallis, himself a registered Democrat. "If Martin Luther King kept his faith to himself, where would we be today?"

Jeffrey Johnson, 28, may be typical of the kind of conservative religious voter who is gravitating toward the Democratic side for 2004. He grew up in west Texas, not far from President Bush's hometown of Midland. Like his parents and grandparents, Johnson is an evangelical Christian. But unlike the rest of his staunchly Republican family, he will be casting a ballot against Bush this year as a matter of conscience.

After college at Baylor University, Johnson headed for Princeton, where he is working toward a doctorate in classics and the ancient world. On campus, he meets monthly with other Christian intellectuals who engage and encourage one another with discussion, prayer, and reading. At home, he and his wife often host a diverse group of students for meals and conversation. Last year, more than 30 people packed into his tiny two-bedroom apartment to celebrate Thanksgiving. Johnson's Christian faith weaves its way through all facets of his life. "Ideally, it conditions my every waking thought," he explains.

Johnson voted for Bush in 2000, believing in the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism. He is also firmly opposed to abortion, and feared that a Supreme Court vacancy under a Democratic president would be disastrous for the abortion-rights agenda. Johnson doubted Bush's intellectual heft, but he respected the candidate's professions of religious faith and seemingly moderate politics. How does he feel about Bush today? "In every instance where I credited him with farsighted change and good ideas," Johnson says, "he has turned out to be precisely the opposite of what I had in mind."

As a Christian, Johnson believes that people must work to protect God's creation; his faith requires that he care for his neighbor and leave this world in better shape than when he entered it. This ethos of stewardship affects Johnson's decisions in the voting booth as well: He is furious about the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol to address global warming; he feels that Bush's tax cuts are extremely irresponsible, and shift a crushing burden onto those who can least afford it; and he firmly opposed the Iraq War from the get-go, faulting the president for disregarding the rest of the global community and waging war prematurely on false grounds.

Back home in Texas, Johnson's family can hardly believe this ideological volte-face. Hoping to change the young man's mind, Johnson's grandfather mailed him a copy of David Horowitz's conservative bildungsroman, Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey. It saddens Johnson that his family believes his new, mostly secular environment has somehow brainwashed him into "becoming a hardcore communist." That's because ultimately, their shared religious faith requires the entire Johnson family to live under the complete authority of the Bible. "It sounds paradoxical, but holding [the Scriptures as the inspired word of God] -- often considered a more theologically conservative position -- can land one in pretty progressive political territory," Johnson explains. "What do we do with verses that talk about God's concern for the poor, the oppressed, orphans, widows, and the [immigrants] in our midst? Do we just ignore these?"

One person who doesn't think so is former president Jimmy Carter. A born-again Christian and an evangelical himself, Carter is arguably one of the most religious presidents in recent history; he still teaches a Sunday school class at his Baptist church in Plains, Georgia. In a recent phone interview, he laid out a scathing criticism of the Bush domestic agenda.

"Christ was committed to compassion for the most destitute, poor, needy, and forgotten people in our society," he says. "Today, most of the people strongly committed to the Republican philosophy have adopted the proposition that help for the rich is the best way to help even poor people by letting some of the financial benefits drip down to those most deeply in need. [T]he ultra-right wing, in both religion and politics, has abandoned that principle of Jesus Christ's ministry."

Echoing the sentiments of many other moderate believers, Carter also expressed grave concern over the Bush administration's foreign-policy agenda.

"[W]hat do Christians stand for, based exclusively on the words and actions of Jesus Christ?" he asked rhetorically. "We worship him as a prince of peace ... . Therein we should not resort to war as a way to exalt the president as the commander in chief. [Today] it seems as though it is an attractive thing in Washington to resort to war in the very early stage of resolving an altercation -- a completely unnecessary war that President Bush decided to launch against the Iraqis is an example of that."

The fundamentalist Christian Zionist movement is especially vexing to Carter. Conservative evangelicals like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay offer unilateral support to Israel based on the New Testament prophecy that the reconstruction of the ancient kingdom of David will usher in the "end times" and the Second Coming of Christ. Carter summarily dismissed this cause, tersely calling it "a completely foolish and erroneous interpretation of the Scriptures."

"And," he went on, "it has resulted in these last few years with a terrible, very costly, and bloody deterioration in the relationship between Israel and its neighbor. ... [T]his administration, maybe strongly influenced by ill-advised theologians of the extreme religious right, has pretty well abandoned any real effort that could lead to a resolution of the problems between Israel and the Palestinians."

Overall, Carter expresses exactly the arguments that could win Democrats the moderate evangelical vote -- provided they make the case. He believes that religious voters who aren't of the Christian right will reject Bush on both his preemptive war and his policies toward the poor. "Those are the two principal things in the practical sense that starkly separate the ultra-right Christian community from the rest of the Christian world," Carter says. "Do we endorse and support peace, and support the alleviation of suffering among the poor and the outcast?"

Late in 2001, Karl Rove dropped by the American Enterprise Institute to share his thoughts on the Bush presidency and electoral strategy with a friendly audience. Benefiting from hindsight, Rove lamented that the Bush campaign had failed to rally all corners of the party faithful, particularly some 4 million white evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals who stayed home on election day. "[Y]et they are obviously part of our base," he declared.

But that might be an overstatement. Judging from the editorial pages of newspapers in battleground states like Florida and West Virginia, Rove could be taking a little too much for granted. In early January, an editorial headlined "How Would Jesus Vote?" in West Virginia's flagship newspaper, the Charleston Gazette, sharply contrasted the actions of the Bush administration with the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. The writer summed it up, noting, "[A] glaring contradiction exists: Everything that Jesus stood for seems opposed by Republicans now in control of Washington ... . Why on earth do so many churchgoers vote for the opposite of Jesus?"

Florida's Palm Beach Post ran a story in October 2002 headlined "We're Christians and We're Not Stupid." The story profiled an evangelical woman who resented media caricatures of Christianity, saying, "I live a radical Christian life. I take my Bible seriously, and I believe in turning the other cheek." Defying the conventional wisdom about evangelicals, she went on to declare her support and love for her homosexual neighbors. "God tells us to love one another," she said simply.

And in late January, editorial columnist William McKenzie wrote in The Dallas Morning News, a newspaper that wends its way into the First Bedroom each morning, "Administration Neocons Elbow Evangelicals Aside," a piece that exposed the culture (socially liberal, centered in Washington and New York) and motivations (the establishment of an American empire) of the powerful neoconservatives lurking behind cow-eyed evangelicals in the Republican Party. "The way those two sides relate affects whether your son or daughter goes to war, whether peace gets struck in the Mideast, and how the war against terrorism gets run," wrote McKenzie. "At this point, the neocons are winning, hands down."

The Bush re-election team has finally decided that a victory in 2004 will be born out of the energy of a newly ignited conservative base. Bush's support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage sends an unmistakable message to conservative Christians, saying, "We haven't forgotten about you -- now do your part." But that strategy is bound to backfire among moderate believers.

Many freestyle evangelicals privately disapprove of homosexuality, but they wince at the shrill, anti-gay posturing of the hard right. Tony Campolo is a progressive evangelical pastor and former professor of sociology at Eastern University, outside Philadelphia. "[Homosexual] behavior is not able to be reconciled with the teachings of Scripture, particularly the first chapter of Romans," he says. "[But it] was not on Jesus' top 10 list of sins." He continues: "What was No. 1 on the list? Religious people who go around creating hardships for everybody [with] their legalism."

The one issue that still tethers many moderate evangelicals to the Republican Party is abortion. The GOP uses abortion as "a political football," as Jim Wallis puts it, while the Democrats' inflexibility on abortion is the single issue blocking many freestyle evangelicals from joining the party ranks. "The Democrats should at least have an open tent where people could be pro-life Catholics, for instance, and still be Democrats," Wallis argues. "Pro-life and pro-choice voters could unite together in a real effort to reduce teen pregnancy, reform the adoption process, and offer alternatives to women backed into difficult and dangerous choices."

Of course, the Democrats are hardly on the cusp of making such a dramatic change. It might not hurt them much this year, when many freestyle evangelicals are, in the words of one believer, "voting against Bush rather than for a Democrat." But what about 2008 and beyond? Can the Democratic umbrella widen just enough to cover freestyle evangelicals after November? Will secular liberals ever be willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with "Jesus people" who aren't afraid to talk about their faith?

After Jonathan Eastvold's preferred candidate, Wesley Clark, dropped out of the presidential race, he contacted the Kerry campaign to inquire about starting up a "Christians for Kerry" forum on the senator's Web site. Although he was unsure whether he would support
Kerry, he hoped to correspond with other undecided believers in the
lead-up to the election. The campaign Web site already hosted many other interest groups, such as "Firefighters for Kerry" and "Students for Kerry." Eastvold was politely informed that if he wanted to open up a Web group, he would be welcome to do so -- but he was not invited to join the official campaign Web site.

In addition to being ideological associations, political parties are cultural amalgams. Open, unembarrassed professions of religiosity haven't been part of the Democratic Party's culture for some time now. One might say this is particularly true of white Protestant evangelicals; the Democratic Party is the home of many mainline Protestants, the vast majority of black evangelicals, many Catholics, and most Jews, but white evangelicals have long been considered GOP turf. The party won't change overnight. But the extremist ideology of this administration -- clearly antithetical to virtually everything Jesus Christ stood for -- has created an opening among religious voters who are a much more diverse lot than the 60 Minutes segment let on. The Democrats can win some votes, redefine the role that religion plays in American public life, and neutralize one of the right wing's great wedge issues -- if they choose to pursue it.