ANALYSIS: Are evangelicals fractured & losing influence in the public square?

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the last of four articles which address research that has been published within the last year or so about people of faith in the U.S. The series examines Christianity in America, what the numbers mean for the Southern Baptist Convention and the imprint of evangelical voters in the public square.

[B]UPDATED[/B] June 12 to add clarity about "percent" and "point" in the section, "WHAT DO THE NUMBERS SHOW?"

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, liberals and moderates were quick to claim a sea change among religious voters, but the facts are not as convincing as the anti-conservative crowd would have you believe.

Cameron Strang, founder of Relevant Magazine and namesake of Stephen Strang, founder of Charisma magazine, crowed, "Young Christians simply don't seem to feel a connection to the traditional religious right," according to beliefnet.com.

"Many differ strongly on domestic policy issues, namely issues that affect the poor, and are dissatisfied with America's foreign policy and war," he said, adding, "The old religious right is dead. The new one is being formed.

"If young evangelicals have anything to say about it chances are high it will not look a lot like the old one."

The leader of the so-called evangelical left, Jim Wallis, was equally ebullient, declaring a "whole new faith coalition is coming together and reaching out to allies in other faith traditions, both Jewish and Muslim," the Christian Science Monitor reported.

"The generational shift (among evangelicals and Catholics) is very significant," he added. "Many young Christians cast a post-religious-right ballot."

But as the oft-attributed-to-Mark Twain saying goes, "Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated."

WHAT DO THE NUMBERS SHOW?

Comparing President Obama's 2008 performance to John Kerry's failed 2004 campaign is one way of assessing his pull among evangelicals -- and this is the comparison made in the main by the mainstream media.

According to CNN.com presidential exit polling information, in 2008, Barack Obama drew 24 percent of what CNN.com described as the White Evangelical/Born Again vote compared to Kerry's 21 percent in 2004 -- and pundits touted Obama's 3 point gain over Kerry as a surge among evangelical voters.

However, the question remains whether in a larger historical context the 3 point increase represented a gain. At first blush, the evangelical vote would appear to be on the swing, but how does Obama stack up against other liberal and moderate presidential candidates?

A better comparison than Kerry (who for all intents and purposes is the left's equivalent of John McCain -- a second or third choice candidate who managed to grab the party's top spot) would be Bill Clinton, another Democrat with the same kind of star power attributed to Obama.

CNN.com data shows Clinton drew 26 percent of what CNN.com described then as White Religious Right Voters -- and this was in a 3-way race that included Bob Dole and Ross Perot.

From this perspective, Obama not only made no gains with evangelicals in 2008, but actually lost 2 points against what had been won in 1996.

The "slide" is even more pronounced if data from the 1992 campaign is added: According to the National Review, Clinton attracted 29 percent of the "Evangelical/Prot." vote in that 3-way race (which included Bush senior and Perot). In 2008, Obama lost ground with Evangelicals to the tune of 5 points compared to 1992! This actually is a 17 percent decline (5 percentage points Obama lost divided by Clinton's 29 percentage point base), which by any objective basis is a political calamity.

Not only that, but consider in 2008 compared to 2004, according to the online Wall Street Journal, "there were ... 4.1 million fewer voters who attend religious services more than once a week. Americans aren't suddenly going to church less; something was missing from the campaign to draw out the more religiously observant."

Pause just a moment to let this bit of information sink in.

Obama, while drawing record crowds among some groups, offered nothing (nor did McCain!) to attract 4.1 million religiously faithful to the polls.

YOUNGER EVANGELICALS

What about claims that younger evangelicals are disaffected with previous evangelical priorities?

Neither CNN's 1996 data nor National Review's 1992 information give any indication how Clinton did with younger evangelicals, but the Christian Science Monitor offered that for 2008, some analysts "say Obama did make inroads with younger white evangelicals in key states like Colorado and Indiana, where he boosted his support among Evangelicals by 14 percentage points and 8 percentage points, respectively, over Kerry's 2004 levels."

Zogby International reported that its poll showed Obama pulled in 28 percent of 18-29-year-old "white born-again [P]rotestants" (a constituency that composes 17 percent of adult evangelicals in the U.S., according to The New York Times). However, this number is only slightly higher than Obama's success with all evangelicals (26 percent), and there's no sign younger evangelicals moved in that direction because of an abandonment of core beliefs.

Forbes.com reported that in a post-election survey, Zogby found that younger evangelicals were much less concerned than others their age about at least one key social issue:

"In our post election poll," John Zogby wrote, "only half as many of all young evangelicals (15 percent) as others in that age group listed the environment and global warming as one of the two most important issues in the election."

(FOR THE RECORD: The Southern Baptist Convention has been advocating for careful stewardship of God's creation for nearly 40 years, passing five resolutions (1970, 1974, 1990, 2006, 2007) urging personal responsibility in reducing pollution but also cautioning against extremism that would: (1) suggest God's creation is fragile or (2) lead to worship of the creation instead of the Creator.)

This seems to fly in the face of Strang's and Wallis' claims of a cultural revolution among younger evangelicals.

Moreover, it confirms what the Pew Forum found in September 2007, just prior to the furious start of the primary races which began in 2008:

"Young white evangelicals remain largely committed to politically conservative values and to conservative positions on a variety of issues, including the war in Iraq, capital punishment and abortion. Indeed, in 2007, more white evangelicals ages 18-29 describe their political views as conservative (44%) than moderate (34%) or liberal (15%), almost identical to their ideological leanings in 2001. So although younger white evangelicals are 14 percentage points less conservative on this measure than white evangelicals ages 30 and older, they are 17 points more conservative than young people as a whole.

"Young white evangelicals exhibit this conservative tendency in their opinion on the war in Iraq. While support for the war has fallen precipitously among all Americans since 2003, the majority (60%) of younger white evangelicals still believe that using military force in Iraq was the right decision, an identical percentage to the number of older white evangelicals who express the same view. Among younger Americans overall, only 41% say that it was the right decision.

"Younger white evangelicals express a similarly conservative opinion when it comes to capital punishment, with the vast majority (72%) favoring the death penalty for convicted murderers, compared with 75% of older white evangelicals but only 56% of all Americans ages 18-29.

"And when it comes to abortion, younger white evangelicals are even more conservative than their older counterparts. For example, 70% of younger white evangelicals favor 'making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion,' compared with 55% of older white evangelicals and 39% of young Americans overall who share this view."

Of course opinions on hot-button issues can shift from moment to moment, but there seems to be an enduring core of beliefs that transcend evangelicals regardless of age. And despite the blitzkrieg by Wallis, Strang and others to try to move younger evangelicals to the left, by all objective standards, they haven't.

THE LEFT AND RIGHT ON SOCIAL ISSUES

I've written on this in the past, but some of the material from before bears repeating here in order to correct the record created by the evangelical left's hype.

Behavioral economist Arthur C. Brooks, director of nonprofit studies for the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, has studied extensively the charitable behavior of Americans and he found some startling differences between liberals and conservatives, but not how most would have expected -- if you accept the conventional wisdom shaped by the liberal media.

"For too long, liberals have been claiming they are the most virtuous members of American society," he wrote in his book, "Who Really Cares." "Although they usually give less to charity, they have nevertheless lambasted conservatives for their [supposed] callousness in the face of social injustice."

His research showed a direct relationship between religion and charity he described as "extraordinary."

"[R]eligious folks ... give nearly four times more dollars per year than secularists, on average, and volunteer more than twice as frequently."

And it is not simply a matter of religious people giving to their churches, but they are more charitable with nonreligious causes as well. "On average, people of faith give more than 50 percent more money each year to non-church social welfare organizations than [liberal] secularists do," according to Brooks.

Conservatives even donate more blood than do liberals.

To be fair, Brooks found that on average religious liberals gave to charities at about the same rates as religious conservatives. However, religious conservatives outnumber religious liberals by about four to one.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Evangelicals aren't monolithic but also aren't fractured. They're a mosaic of ethnicities; rural, suburban and city dwellers; and a host of other characteristics and demographics. Yet they share a common focus on serving Christ, touching others with His love and offering His message of salvation to all who will listen. They not only willingly give a man in need a loaf of bread without strings attached, but also take the time to share Christ as the Living Bread, if that man will listen.

Consider the Southern Baptist Convention, for example:

-- Both Al Gore and George W. Bush described the Christian Women's Job Corps program, a ministry of the Woman's Missionary Union, as the best of its type in lifting women out of government dependency and helping them become self-supporting wage-earners. More than 2,000 participants were assisted last year.

-- During the past 15 years, Southern Baptists have rehabilitated more than 11,000 homes, mostly in inner-city areas, and unlike Habitat for Humanity there is no charge to the homeowner.

-- Southern Baptists operate one of the three largest disaster relief organizations in the country with nearly 83,000 trained volunteers and 1,500 deployable units (chain saw, mud-out, command, communication, child care, shower, laundry, water purification, repair/rebuild, generators, and others). While operating SBC-specific relief centers, Southern Baptists also provide volunteer labor to the Red Cross and Salvation Army. During Katrina relief operations, the Red Cross credited Southern Baptists with serving 90 percent of meals provided at Red Cross sites.

-- Moreover, over the last 30 years or so, at the national level alone, Southern Baptists have given nearly a quarter billion dollars for hunger relief around the world (more than $231 million to be more precise). Collected monies are split 80/20 to international and domestic projects and last year just in the U.S. about 3.5 million meals were provided through the SBC's World Hunger Fund.

In each of these ministry areas there also are collective efforts at the state and local level, and then what congregations and individuals do on their own.

As for what issues are most important to evangelicals, it depends on how you frame the question. Most evangelicals do not want to smell, see, hear, taste or touch pollution or cause others to do so -- and they will tell you so. But survey after survey shows evangelicals also place the rights of the unborn and the protection of the biblical construct of marriage as top priorities in expressing their values.

Moreover, in recent polls the U.S. as a whole has indicated a shift toward a pro-life majority, and individual support for traditional marriage has been strengthened across the board. And this general trend is reflected in the fact that every state that has introduced a voter referendum on marriage has passed a constitutional amendment that defines marriage in traditional terms (the union of a man and a woman). To date the tally is 30 states, including California which passed Prop 8.

Yet, it's not about being in the majority or being esteemed in man's eyes. It's about being obedient to God's Word and living according to His priorities, not human whims and fancies, whether the norm or not.

In Daniel 3, the Bible records that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego faced certain demise for going against cultural ritual and government decree. When given a final chance to fall in line (by man's standards and against God's), the three men responded resolutely to a certain sentence of death:

"O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter.

"If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king.

"But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up."

Much can be said about their courage and commitment in terms of the future when we might face the same kind of persecution in America.

However, when all is said and done, the time for evangelicals to show similar resolve is not in some era to come, but today.


Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press.

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