Religion's left turn

US evangelicals aren't the conseratives the used to be. And the implications for the election couldn't be bigger

Back in the day, when Jim Wallis started telling evangelicals they didn't have to be Republicans or even right-wingers to be good Christians, he used to wave around a Bible that had been cut to shreds. He had gone through the good book and cut out all references to helping the poor and social justice. What was left was thin and tatty, and he'd provocatively declare to evangelical audiences: "This is the American Bible."

Back in the 1980s and 1990s he was, to borrow the language of his faith, a prophet in the wilderness. The religious right was in the ascendancy. Movement conservatism and the self-righteous moral majority at its core was the face America had been showing the world since Ronald Reagan was elected at the end of the 1970s. In many parts of the globe it wasn't seen as a pretty face.

While movement conservatism waned slightly during the Clinton years (although Newt Gingrich and the majority Republican Congress kept the flame burning), Karl Rove used gay marriage, abortion and stem-cell research to turn the nearly 25% of Americans who consider themselves evangelical Christians into a potent voting bloc in 2000 and 2004. George Bush was their president, and God would bless them. The last eight years, however, have not gone as planned. Bush has disappointed.

Evangelicals will once again be a significant force in this year's presidential elections, but don't assume that the evangelicals you knew eight - or even four - years ago are the same today as they were then. Don't assume they'll stay loyal to movement conservatism and vote alongside the economic and national security conservatives. In those mega churches, those small-town Pentecostal gatherings and those soaring Catholic cathedrals, the mood has changed. A lot. Evangelical leaders are talking about "a quiet earthquake".

Wallis, the author of God's Politics and a new book, Great Awakenings, is a prominent, respected evangelical leader and says his message that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat has finally sunk in. That tatty bible he used to carry round? "It's coming back together," he says. When we spoke recently about the religious right and the power it's wielded in this country, he told me plain and simple: "It's really over." As he's written elsewhere evangelicals are leaving the religious right in droves.

The 2008 elections will be different from 2004 in two significant ways. First, Wallis talks about "a level praying field". Both the remaining Democratic contenders speak openly about their faith in a way Democratic leaders have long been reluctant to. They're unashamedly reaching out to church communities, refusing to concede the Christian vote to the right. What's more, the churches are listening. On the Republican side, only Mike Huckabee is a truly evangelical candidate, and while he has won some grassroots support, most church leaders have refused to embrace his candidacy.

Some in the media lazily assume that the religious vote has simply been looking for a right-wing candidate they can relate to and, for lack of alternatives, will rally around John McCain if he becomes the inevitable nominee. But that misses Wallis' second point - that the evangelical agenda has changed. Evangelicals simply aren't the conservatives they used to be.

For years, evangelicals have voted strictly according to a few core issues, most notably abortion and gay marriage. No more. Wallis says the key issues in churches now are poverty, peace and social justice. The polls back him up. As early as October last year CBS News found that evangelicals wanted to hear the candidates talk about healthcare and the war in Iraq. Abortion and gay marriage were at the bottom of their priorities. When asked what issues evangelicals should be involved in, 33% said poverty and 17% genocide, compared to 22% who said abortion. Over 40% say a candidate's position on climate change will be "extremely" or "very" important in deciding their vote.

As Wallis says: "Most evangelicals will care more about the 30,000 children who died yesterday and the 30,000 more who will die today for the most stupid, unnecessary reasons, than about a gay marriage amendment in Ohio."

Why the change? Partly because the Republicans have failed them. Evangelicals signed a Faustian pact, handing over their mailing lists and votes in return for a conservative moral agenda. But those policies have gained them little. Abortion rates, for example, are unchanged. Far from spreading American Christian values, the war in Iraq has poisoned international relations. Their political and religious leaders have been dragged down by greed and sexual scandal. "They feel used," says Wallis, and he's confident a Rove-like fear campaign wouldn't work again.

But the change is more than political. Moderates such as Wallis have stood up to be counted and preached a Bible-based Christianity that isn't right-wing or partisan. The evangelical tradition - still only a few generations old - is maturing, and as it grows in its faith, it has found it increasingly hard to ignore the Bible's dictates on poverty and justice. In churches worldwide, creation theology - not creationism, but a stressing of the biblical passages that urge good stewardship of the earth - has grown in influence, spawning a fast-growing Christian green movement.

And there's another reason that's easily overlooked. Evangelicals, by definition, are committed to "spreading the word". Those mega churches have started missions all round the world, and what do you know? When they see poverty in the flesh, come face to face with people of other cultures and faiths, when they hear about human rights abuses first-hand, they are changed. They judge less and care more. You could call it a revelation.

Many of those missions involve young Christians, and it's Christian youth who are the beating heart of evangelical change. They care at least as much about the environment and poverty as they do abortion. "Most of them don't know or care about the Reagan coalition," Wallis says.

A poll in this month's Relevant magazine - a periodical for young evangelicals - is striking. I don't know the poll's methodology, only that "thousands voted" and that it was "online", so I take the findings with a grain of salt. Still, the findings are worth noting.

Almost 55% of those surveyed considered themselves conservative on "moral issues" such as abortion and gay marriage, but 44% said they were liberal on "social issues" such as poverty and healthcare. These people are not of the Moral Majority. In fact, asked who was the better president, 55% to 45% they preferred Bill Clinton to George Bush. The poll's key question was "who would Jesus vote for?" As you might imagine, Mike Huckabee did well, with 24%. But the top dog was Barak Obama on 28%.

What this means for the 2008 race is that, as I've written before, it's the Democrats' to lose. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both able to win nearly 40% of the evangelical vote, but John Kerry only won 21%. If evangelicals are in the mood for change and open to the Democratic candidate talking healthcare and care for the poor, well, as Wallis puts it: "That's the election all by itself."

However, this is bigger than 2008. Let me preface what I say next by acknowledging that evangelicals haven't suddenly turned into San Francisco liberals or loyal Democrats. Most remain pro-life and anti-gay marriage, and those issues continue to matter. Many evangelicals haven't changed at all. But many, many more have. What we're seeing is a moderating, a recognition that Christian and right-wing beliefs need not, perhaps should not, go hand-in-hand.

What that means is the death of movement conservatism, as its central thread disentangles itself. For more than a generation, religious, economic and national security conservatives have tended to vote en masse, and Republican. Wound together, the rope has been strong. Yet in this Republican race each thread has its own candidate. The evangelicals have Huckabee, but he's open to big government spending and talks to "Wal-Mart Republicans, not Wall Street Republicans". The economic conservatives distrust him and when he talks of Bush's "bunker mentality" in foreign policy, the neocons wail. The national security conservatives have McCain, but he's an economic lightweight and he's long been offside with the religious vote. Romney was the guy for the Republican leadership, the money men. But as a Mormon and with little foreign policy heft, he was hardly loved by the other threads, and he was forced to exit the race. With every attack the candidates make on each other, the threads pull further apart.

To Wallis's mind, "they're splintering". He continues: "The three pillars of conservatism are not going to win the hearts and minds of the religious community now because the economic agenda fails the crunch questions of compassion and social justice."

Let the people say, amen.

This post first appeared in the Guardian's Comment is Free section on February 12, 2008.