Our second article from the Winter 2008 issue comes from Matthew Lee Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy, and concerns the political, cultural, and theological evolution of young evangelicals.
In the 2008 Presidential campaign, the dominant story once again focused on how the evangelical voting bloc would align itself. In late 2007, amidst stories that the influence of the so-called “values voters” was waning, evangelicals launched Mike Huckabee’s previously struggling campaign into the national limelight. Though Huckabee’s inability to move beyond his evangelical base ensured his influence would not last, his politics and campaign drove a wedge not only between the evangelical public and the evangelical elite, but between the evangelical public and the Republican intelligentsia, most of whom offered nothing but loathing for the Arkansas governor.
As Huckabee’s campaign faded, Barack Obama’s ascension kept evangelicals and religion in the public eye. In 2004, John Kerry ignored the so-called “faith based community” until it was too late—so Obama started his courtship early. In 2006, he had shared a stage with Sam Brownback at Rick Warren’s influential Saddleback Church for a Global Summit on Aids and the Church. In 2008, he returned to Saddleback along with Republican nominee John McCain to discuss with Warren the issues evangelicals care about.
While Obama was expected to perform wonderfully on stage, McCain was not to be outdone. The aging Senator delivered what was unanimously considered a stellar performance on Saddleback’s stage, and then acknowledged evangelicals even further by selecting one of their own, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Palin’s status was solidified during her speech at the Republican National Convention, where she established herself as a formidable political force in spite of attacks from many in the establishment media.
For the most part, evangelicals were overjoyed by the selection of Palin, a mother of five who clearly lived out her pro-life principles. But prior to her selection, many of Obama’s supporters fueled increased speculation that evangelical voters—especially the younger generation—are no longer captive to the “religious right” or the Republican Party. It is a story that seems to write itself every election cycle—as author Hannah Rosin wrote in 2000, the focus of the religious right was, in her words, “maturing”:
Like many who start out as political gadflies, Christian activists are blurring into the mainstream. Where once pollsters found solid agreement among those who identify themselves as religious right, they now find disagreement, even on fundamental questions such as prayer in schools. Where once they found a single-issue focus, they now find distractions; religious conservatives define their top priorities for candidates as anything from their morality to their education policy to their tax plan. They still care about abortion, but many care about other issues more.
This trend, if real, wasn’t reflected to a great degree at the ballot box in November. According to the 2008 exit polls, even a dynamic figure like Obama was unable to break evangelical voters to the left. A total of 26% of evangelicals voted for Obama, compared to 23% for Kerry—a statistically insignificant change. But upon closer examination, Rosin’s description might finally be coming true.
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