Is the evangelical movement evolving into more of a bipartisan force? Frances Fitzgerald thinks so and presents a persuasive case for this viewpoint in her New York Review of Books article “The Evangelical Surprise.” This trend has been noted before, but Fitzgerald does a particularly good job of bringing it all together and up to date. Fitzgerald explains:
Statistically, the extreme conservatism of the traditionalists skews the picture of the community as a whole. In fact, “modernist” evangelicals—defined as those who go to church infrequently and don’t hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible—have more liberal views on all issues, including abortion and gay rights, than the American population as a whole, but there are relatively very few of them. “Centrists,” or those who fall somewhere in the theological middle and make up almost half of all evangelicals, are no more conservative than Americans generally except on abortion and gay rights, and even on these issues they are far more moderate than the traditionalists. In other words, half of the evangelical population doesn’t see eye to eye with the other half. In the future the division may become more acute because while the Christian right leaders have become more ambitious and more aggressive as a result of their victories, centrist leaders have, for the first time, begun to assert themselves.
Fitzgerald discusses a number of surprisingly liberal initiatives launched by moderate evangelical leaders, including some that should make Republicans a little nervous about their base. One example:
In October 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella organization of denominations and churches that claims thirty million members, issued a position paper laying out ten principles for Christian political engagement. The document, “For the Health of the Nation,” called upon evangelicals to seek justice for the poor, to protect human rights, to seek peace, and to protect God’s creation—as well as to protect the sanctity of human life and nurture families. Carefully drawn up so as not to provoke right-wing opposition, the document gave official sanction to the efforts of the more progressive leaders to move, at a national level, beyond both the religious right agenda and the traditional evangelical approach to good works.
Fitzgerald quotes John Giles, president of Christian Action Alabama, in defining key wedge issues that can break the GOP’s leverage with evangelicals:
We can all unite around a few core issues, such as abortion, pornography and gambling,” he said. “But when you start talking about global warming, the minimum wage or the death penalty, the consensus breaks down.”…Dobson and Perkins have said much the same thing.
If Fitzgerald is right, the widening political fissures in the evangelical movement are an invitation to Democratic strategists looking to mine potential sources of new support.