Thomas Peter/ Courtesy Reuters

The Politics of Evangelicalism

How Washington is Leaving the Faithful Behind

Human beings need narratives. They provide purpose, explanation, and meaning. They underlie religions and nations alike. To be sure, they sometimes reinforce preordained categories that prohibit nuance and leave listeners less willing to grapple with others' narratives. Many people end up reading and watching "analysis" that only convinces them of his or her own story, while simultaneously condemning the unfamiliar. It is a rather sad condition in a country whose founding story is one of mutual respect and pluralism.

Unfortunately, Robert Putnam and David Campbell's "God & Caesar in America" (March/April 2011) falls victim to an exclusionary narrative. Their essay employs powerful statistical evidence to conclude that young Americans have decided to "opt out of religion altogether." Although their data seem compelling, however, their conclusions leave no place for the experiences of many Americans.

Putnam and Campbell believe politics has pitted "devout conservatives against secular progressives," leaving Republicans to "appease their fervently religious base without alienating a general electorate that increasingly finds the mixture of religion and politics distasteful." The result is a growing group of "nones" -- that is, those not religiously affiliated -- who understand "religion" in the Republican context as "intolerant" and "homophobic."

More, the overall logic of the article suggests that if a person is religious, then that person is a Protestant Evangelical and politically conservative; that a person cannot be faithfully devout and politically progressive; that if a person is not religious then he or she has no belief or faith at all; and that Americans do not want faithful conviction in the public square.

Yet these assumptions of Putnam and Campbell in particular do not bear out, at least among the group of evangelicals with whom I am most familiar. Theologically orthodox (lowercase o) and seeking to be biblically faithful, this sector is a relatively silent and leaderless but large. This group is of all ages, but they tend to be younger. They do not identify with capital-E Evangelicals -- whose national and global reputation is political, strident, and unforgiving.

Instead, if the people in this group use the term at all, they use it with a lowercase e. They want to be defined by what they are for -- an orthodox reading of scripture, the interpretation and application of which they must faithfully grapple with -- instead of what they are against. For example, they want to be seen as being "for marriage" and "pro-life" instead of anti-gay and anti-abortion. In other words, they largely hold the same values as Evangelicals, they just aren't angry about it.

What is up for grabs is their political support at home and abroad. They might find aspects of the Democratic Party appealing, especially its heart for the disenfranchised, and be "turned off" by the Republican religious narrative Putnam and Campbell describe. At the same time, they do not feel comfortable with a party that seemingly resists any public discussion of what it means to be pro-life and to believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Alternatively, the lower case e evangelicals might find much to love in the Republican Party, but not feel comfortable with a political narrative that treats Muslims and Hispanics as second-class citizens. For example, there are many evangelicals faithful to the Bible who believe that the Republican Party is shooting itself in both feet by not actively engaging those communities, which generally have a strong commitment to moral values. As a result, those groups are increasingly ready to follow the flight of the African-American community to the Democratic Party.

In the last election, although the majority of these folks voted for Senator John McCain, a surprising and significant minority voted for Senator Barack Obama. Many might do so again, but the choice is less clear than in 2008. In other words, there are plenty of people who hold religious views -- and are politically active -- but aren't served by either party. They seek a faith applied, not a religion petrified, and they eschew political labels. The Republicans formerly took them for granted, and the Democrats are only now learning how to talk to them.

This group of evangelicals who transcend the usual political categories is well documented. To name but a few works in this canon from the past decade: In The New Faithful (2002), journalist Colleen Carroll showed why young people are seeking an orthodox Christianity amid postmodernity's relativism; in The Younger Evangelicals (2003), the theologian Robert Webber explained the difference between twentieth and twenty-first-century evangelicalism as a shift from the belief in the false power of politics and consumerism to belief in Jesus' example of servanthood; in Ambassadors of Hope (2004), Ambassador Robert Seiple made the argument that evangelicalism is not a spectator sport, instead requiring that the faith be lived out unabashedly and practically in the most complex environments; in Revolution (2005), the pollster George Barna explained why "committed Christ followers" are leaving organized religion; in Right Wing, Wrong Bird (2006), the senior pastor Joel Hunter argued that Christians need to move away from the simple and certain answers of the religious right toward a humble, righteous, and reconciling engagement in all spheres, including politics; in Evangelicals in the Halls of Power (2007), sociologist Michael Lindsay documented a fervent evangelical community divided between "cosmopolitan" elites whose work requires them to engage with those unlike themselves, and a "populist" middle class that is comfortably cocooned from those different from them; and in To Change the World (2010), James Hunter Davison, professor of religion at the University of Virginia, noted the tragic-irony of the evangelical left worshipping at the same altar as the evangelical right: politics.

I first wrote about the breakdown of traditional political and religious stereotypes among evangelicals in May 2003 for Prism, describing an increasing desire among evangelicals to live a holistic and global faith -- engaging but transcending politics -- through practical and local action. In 2004, I wrote for the same publication on the promise and peril of American evangelicalism (part I & part II). In 2010, I presented a talk on trends in American evangelicalism in Islamabad to the combined national councils for Sharia and Da'wa (Islamic evangelism). In that talk, I described three trends within American evangelicalism -- an ongoing vigorous discussion of its definition, and a movement toward global and multifaith engagement that encourages honest discussion of irreconcilable theological differences as well as common values.

Which brings us to another irony: Putnam and Campbell do not discuss the implications of religion for U.S. foreign policy. Yet among the lower case e evangelicals, for example, there is an increasing global awareness and commitment to fighting clear injustices through governmental and grassroots coalitions (AIDS, sex trafficking, poverty, and so on). It is less clear, however, what role these evangelicals might play in more fluid cases, for example, in Iran and North Korea. Even so, there is an emerging desire to be agents of reconciliation in the most complex of these situations.

At any rate, contrary to what Putnam and Campbell claim, it has been my experience that Americans want faith-formed values to play a role in discussions about domestic and foreign policies. And they want a leader with a strong sense of faith and convicted humility. They do not want, as Putnam and Campbell themselves confirm, to adhere to religious ideologies with political checklists about how to think, act, and vote.

Toward this end, the United States needs to reclaim and strengthen that safe space in which those of opposite, but not necessarily opposing, theological and political views can work together. Americans are a faithful and respectful people. Our capacity to listen to each other's narratives and cooperate without rancor is what made us great. More than ever, such capacity is the key to future greatness in a globalized world.

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