Author Marcia Pally here describes the “aha!” moment that led her to research and write her latest book, The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good, a compelling documentary portrait of Christian evangelicals who have “left the (religious) right.”
In 2005, I was reading a large amount of material by evangelicals for a quite different project, and, shortly after George W. Bush’s second inaugural, I noticed a change. While white evangelicals had long been perceived as the “Republican party at prayer,” associated with the prosperity gospel and a “political wins” strategy, no less a publication than wrote, “George W. Bush is not Lord. . . . The American flag is not the Cross. The Pledge of Allegiance is not the Creed. ‘God Bless America’ is not Doxology.” The magazine rejected the conflation of Biblical truths with Republican values and of church with state.
Something was up. To be sure, many evangelicals had never been enthusiasts of religious right economics or politics, but that right-wing voice had gotten a loud microphone for over 35 years. Suddenly, where there had seemingly been a monovocal evangelicalism, there was robust polyphony.
What I was seeing in 2005 was evidence of the most significant change in America’s religio-politics in a century. Millions of evangelicals across denominations and around the country are moving away from the so-called “religious right” towards an anti-consumerist, anti-militarist activism that focuses on economic fairness, environmental protection, and racial-religious reconciliation — a broadening activism that is changing the distribution of money, resources, and people world wide.
Evangelicals are also rethinking their relationship with government. The 2008 , signed by over seventy evangelical leaders, called on evangelicals to distance themselves from party politics, lest “Christians become ‘useful idiots’ for one political party or another and . . . Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests.”
The shift is in part generational, as evangelical leaders notice and respond to the many young Christians who eschew the policies of the last 40 years. But it is also a rethinking of ethics by people who take ethics seriously — as older evangelicals ask why the youth were dropping out and re-examining their political ethics. As Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, said, “Sure it’s a youth movement, but the ‘youth’ seems to be everyone under sixty-nine.”
In my field research for The New Evangelicals, I met evangelical office workers who told me, “You know that old saying, ‘If you give a person a fish, he’ll eat for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he’ll eat for his whole life.’ But what if they don’t have rights to use the stream, and what if the stream is polluted? You can’t separate these things: we have to deal with pollution, sustainability, poverty, education, and information together. There is no ‘they’ and ‘us’; there is just ‘we.’”
I met those working in overseas missions who, rejecting the “Bibles for bacon” approach to evangelizing, said, “Go back to the Crusades; Christians were killing people in the name of God. Give me a break. In foreign countries, people want to know what we’re in it for — the oil, the diamonds? . . . I’ve dug thirty-foot water wells with guys who didn’t believe what I do, and I love those guys. If God wants to use me to change their belief, that’s fine. If not, then heck, we dug a well.”
While evangelicals are not shifting en masse towards the Democratic Party, owing to ongoing evangelical opposition to abortion, they are making more issue-by-issue policy assessments: more Republican on abortion, more Democratic on the environment, more independent on economics. This made me wonder. Seventy-three percent of abortions in the US are economically driven. My research suggests that, if all those uncomfortable with abortion — including both evangelicals and feminists — worked in concert to raise funds and lobby Congress for the medical, economic, and emotional structures that allow women to bring pregnancies to term, our political landscape on all the other issues might look very different.