By Mandy Smith
When church historians look back on the 1990s, they’ll undoubtedly refer to the “worship war” years. But what will they call our current age? My guess is that when discussing the first decades of the 21st century, historians will talk about “The God Gap.”
The worship war looked like a discussion about instruments and songs, but it really swung on, “How much can we allow culture to affect our church experience and the expression of our faith?” Today, the collision of faith and culture continues in new arenas. And as if faith isn’t a hot enough topic by itself, we’ve mixed in another one: politics.
When Bono (lead singer of the rock band U2 and icon of politically liberal movements such as one.net) aligned himself with Bill Hybels (pastor at Willow Creek Community Church and one of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America”), I knew politics and evangelical Christianity were on a collision course. One of the highlights of Willow Creek’s 2006 Leadership Summit was Bill Hybels’s interview of Bono, during which Bono passionately expressed his belief in Christ, and then described his difficult relationship with the church.
He said, “I think . . . only 6 percent of evangelicals polled felt it incumbent upon them to respond to the AIDS emergency. I was very angry. I was angry with the church. I never liked the church particularly. I never felt comfortable really in churches. And now I knew why. And then something dreadful happened. The church started to wake up, started to get organized, started to be really powerful in this area and they ruined it for me. Now I have total respect for the church.”1
What does it mean that conservative Christians have started caring about issues traditionally seen as politically liberal? What would it mean if theological conservatism was no longer synonymous with political conservatism? And what will all this mean for the upcoming election?
Reducing the God Gap
A Time magazine article declared “the Republican lock on Evangelicals may be breaking. The percentage of white Evangelicals who self-identify as Republicans has declined from roughly 50% in 2004 to about 44% [in February 2007], according to [John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life]. . . . ‘There is a loosening of the Republican coalition, particularly among people under 30.’”2
A Center for American Values in Public Life report states, “The so-called ‘God gap’—the 20-point advantage Republicans have held for a decade among Americans who attend religious services once a week or more—has been virtually cut in half, down from 22 points in 2004 to 12 points in 2006, according to the National Election Pool (NEP) exit polls covering U.S. House races nationwide.”3
If this is the case, it’s more likely than ever that some believers in our families and congregations will vote for independent or Democratic candidates this election. Are we ready for that possibility? How will we respond to them? Will we act out of fear that they have lost their faith or become theologically liberal?
The point here is not to advise conservative Christians how to vote, only to help theologically and politically conservative Christians understand the thinking of conservative Christians who are politically liberal. It will help us if we understand some factors behind these predictions that many conservative/evangelical Christians will not be voting Republican this year.
Leaving the Republicans
Why are some evangelicals moving away from the Republicans?
• Concerns about justice and the environment. Whether it’s just a passing trend, created by movies like An Inconvenient Truth and Hotel Rwanda, or the birth of a new era brought on by the severity of the situation, justice and the environment are on our minds.
Even corporations are getting in on the trend: Wal-Mart is trying out a “green roof” made of living plants at one of its stores and stocking its shelves with strange, curly, low-energy lightbulbs. And Starbucks is meeting with the Ethiopian prime minister to discuss how it can support the Ethiopian coffee industry. Did these companies suddenly become more responsible or did they realize these are the values of their customers?
More and more evangelicals (especially those in their 20s and 30s) want to vote for someone who is concerned, even passionate, about justice and the environment, but these issues are not high on the agenda for most Republican candidates.
• Democratic candidates are talking faith. According to a Christianity Today weblog, “Democrats and Republicans seem to have switched places in their use of religious rhetoric.”4 Unlike John Kerry and some other Democrats who have, in recent years, been reluctant to talk about faith, this year’s candidates have become quite comfortable discussing personal beliefs. As a New York Times article reported,
Intimate discussions of politics and religion have long been the province of Republican candidates for public office. But [in June 2007] the three leading Democratic presidential hopefuls—former Senator John Edwards and Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton—opened up at an unusual televised forum about their faiths, the role of prayer in their public lives, and the ways that religion informs their views on policy and government. Each is aiming to make historic inroads among evangelical Christians and other committed churchgoers who have up to now been most linked with the Republican base.5
• The media is providing us with a new option—politically liberal, yet theologically conservative. In a new tack, the latest releases from conservative/evangelical publishers are beginning to tackle how Christians should respond to issues of poverty, the environment, and justice.
For example, Zondervan publishes titles like Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals and Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action. And Thomas Nelson now prints books like Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (on environmentally friendly paper, of course).
And an irreverent comedian named Stephen Colbert (named in 2006 as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people) has helped Christians find a voice outside of the Republican right. While his satirical show, The Colbert Report, frequently pokes fun at Christians (and everyone else), the comedian himself is outspoken about his faith. As he declared in a magazine interview: “What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That’s totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ. His kingdom is not of this earth.”6
Looking Outside of Ourselves at Last
One good thing about this political debate among conservative Christians is that, unlike the worship wars, we’ve moved outside our church buildings. We’re no longer talking about issues that affect only our church experience but have turned to a discussion of issues like poverty, AIDS, global warming, homelessness, health care—issues that reach outside of our income brackets and borders.
And so while evangelical Christians may disagree on some political issues, at least we’re asking important questions, questions larger than “drums or organ?”
Republicans use the term “values voters” to refer to their value for unborn children and the traditional family. These are undoubtedly good and Christian values. But, as a Washington Post article puts it, the term “values voter” “implies that only social conservatives vote to advance their values.”7
Jesus said they’ll know we are Christians by our love, and so we certainly should vote according to the loves that drive us. Whether our love is for God’s creation, unborn children, small businesses, our freedoms and rights, single mothers, inner-city children, underpaid workers in the Third World, prisoners, or the elderly, we should vote in a way that shows it.
Sadly, because of our country’s man-made, two-party system, we can’t vote for one party that represents all these values, and so we must make a hard choice. But regardless of how we vote, our vote—whoever it’s for—becomes a Christian vote if it is motivated by Christian values. If we understand that our fellow believers are voting their Christian values, we can still be united in our faith and in our determination to live out Jesus’ teachings in the world, even if we are divided in our vote.
1A full video of this interview is available in eight parts at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=bono+hybels&search_type=.
2Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, “How the Democrats Got Religion,” Time, 12 July 2007; also available at www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1642649,00.html. See also www.pewforum.org.
4Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Faith-Talk Surprise: Presidential candidates deviate from the usual religious scripts,” Christianity Today weblog, 9 October 2007, www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/november/1.16.html.
5Patrick Healy and Michael Luo, “Edwards, Clinton and Obama Describe Journeys of Faith,” The New York Times, 5 June 2007, www.nytimes.com/2007/06/05/us/politics/05dems.html.
6David Cote, “Joyce Words,” Time Out New York, Issue 506 (9-15 June 2005).
7George F. Will, “Who Isn’t a Values Voter?” The Washington Post, 18 May 2006, A23.
Mandy Smith is associate pastor with University Christian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.
SIDEBAR: “What Does This Mean for the Way We Do Church?”
We have a choice: Will we turn this division within the evangelical ranks into the next heretic hunt and further divide the Christian effort? Or will we find a way to agree to disagree? Here is a challenge to put into action our Restoration concept: “In nonessentials, liberty. And in all things love.”
If some in our congregations are politically liberal, how will this affect the way we present politics from the pulpit? Will we force those who vote differently to choose between their faith and their politics? Statements like “You can’t be Republican and Christian” or “You can’t be Democrat and Christian” are not only hurtful and divisive, they present a false, unbiblical choice.
How can we talk about environmental and justice concerns, not as political issues, but out of the Christian values of stewardship and benevolence?
Consider: How can we presume to present the gospel to politically liberal unbelievers if we make light of their ideology or don’t try to understand it?
WEB-ONLY SIDEBAR: “SELECTED QUOTES”
“God is not a Republican . . . or a Democrat.”
—Jim Wallis (from God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It [New York: HarperCollins, 2005], back cover).
“A new generation of evangelical leaders is rejecting old labels; now an alliance of religious activists that runs from the crunchy left across to the National Association of Evangelicals has called for action to address global warming, citing the biblical imperative of caring for creation.”
—Time (from “How the Democrats Got Religion,” written by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, 12 July 2007).
“Nearly half of young born-again Christians say they perceive ‘the political efforts of conservative Christians’ to be a problem facing America.”
—David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (from unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007], 155).
“Despite all the punditry about a ‘God gap’ at the voting booth, this is a better moment for Democrats to pick up support from religious moderates than any other time in the past few decades. That’s because evangelicals themselves are the ones who are broadening the faith agenda, insisting that there are issues they care about beyond abortion and gay marriage, connecting Gospel messages about the golden rule and the Good Samaritan to the policies they want their government to support.”
—from Washington Monthly (“When Would Jesus Bolt?” written by Amy Sullivan, April 2006, available at www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0604.sullivan.html).
“Our daughter is in her 20s, and she’s very serious about her faith in Christ and her commitment to the authority of Scripture. But her views about political candidates and social issues are sometimes different from our own. Instead of quarreling, we’ve found it’s better to learn from each other’s opinions and to lovingly challenge each other to defend our ideas with biblical principles. We all agree that our loyalty to Christ far outweighs our allegiance to any political party. And over the long haul, our relationship with each other is far more important than having the ‘right’ opinion about the latest cultural controversy.”
—A well-known conservative Christian leader (who wishes to remain anonymous).
WEB-ONLY SIDEBAR: “SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY”
“The God Gap? The Faith of Republicans and Democrats,” March 5, 2007, www.barna.org.
Jesse Carey, “The Politics of Faith,” Relevant Magazine, www.relevantmagazine.com/pc_article.php?id=7480.
David Cote, “Joyce Words,” Time Out New York, Issue 506 (June 9-15, 2005).
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, “How the Democrats Got Religion,” Time, 12 July 2007, www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1642649,00.html.
Laurie Goodstein, “For a Trusty Voting Bloc, a Faith Shaken,” The New York Times, 7 October 2007.
Patrick Healy and Michael Luo, “Edwards, Clinton and Obama Describe Journeys of Faith,” The New York Times, 5 June 2007, www.nytimes.com/2007/06/05/us/politics/05dems.html.
David Kirkpatrick, “The Evangelical Crack-Up,” The New York Times Magazine, 28 October 2007.
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Un-Christian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).
Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
Amy Sullivan, “When Would Jesus Bolt?” The Washington Monthly. April 2006, www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0604.sullivan.html.
Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).
George F. Will, “Who Isn’t a Values Voter?” The Washington Post, 18 May 2006, A23, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/17/AR2006051701874.html.