by Nathan Empsall, Thu Mar 18, 2010 at 03:56:39 PM EDT
It’s official: the religious right no longer dominates evangelical politics. The movement has outgrown its narrow focus on school prayer, abortion, and homophobia. Evangelicals have been trending this way for several years, but concrete change came today as the Christian Coalition endorsed John Kerry and Lindsey Graham's efforts to pass a major clean energy and climate change bill. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Christian Coalition, it’s the organization formed out of the remnants of Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign and brought to prominence by Ralph Reed – what Democracy for America is to Howard Dean, and the backbone of the religious right in the early 1990s.)
I have long been intrigued by the changing nature of evangelical politics. It was the subject of my undergraduate thesis: evangelicals never cease their political involvement, but every few decades, the nature of that involvement changes. Since the mid-1970s, evangelical politics have been in the era of the “religious right,” but that era is coming to a close. Evangelicals aren’t abandoning their positions on the aforementioned wedge issues, but they are changing their rhetoric and beginning to care about justice issues. All the evidence, though, has been circumstantial, with plenty to counter it: Individual megachurch pastors, like Rick Warren, call for a more civil discourse and a focus on more than just two or three issue, but always meet with sharp rebukes from the likes of James Dobson. A poll showed young evangelicals, while as pro-life as their parents, are also pro-civil-unions, but there’s no sign of political action to back it up. The Christian Coalition elected a president concerned with creation care (climate change) and poverty in 2006, but ousted him before he took office.
So while thousands of evangelical churches are “greening” their congregations, whether or not personal commitment to “creation care” would translate to political action has always been a slippery question. Today, I think, we finally have a solid answer. This isn’t just a generational shift like in the above poll; it’s the old guard seeing the light and braodening their focus. The current leader, Roberta Combs, took over as president for Pat Robertson in 2001 and led the aforementioned ouster of her 2006 replacement, but says the following in a new radio ad:
President Bush was right: our addiction to foreign oil threatens our national security and economic prosperity. America spends almost a billion dollars a day on foreign oil and a lot of that goes to countries that do not like us and harbor terrorists. Washington's failure to act puts our national security at risk, and drains our economy. I've heard from so many Christian Coalition supporters that energy is one of the most important issues we face today. America is a can-do country. We've got to take the lead to explore energy alternatives and protect our national security. We have to make our country safer by creating jobs with the made-in-America energy plan. I would like to ask you to call Sen. Lindsey Graham and encourage him to continue fighting for our families.
Evangelical politics are same-old same-old on abortion and, for now, gay rights. They are and always will be fundamentally conservative, but that doesn’t mean the progressive movement should reject a strong partner on specific issues such as the fight against climate change. With the forced ouster of James Dobson at Focus on the Family, the movement’s rhetoric and willingness to cooperate seems to be changing, and that’s an outstretched hand I say we take where we can. Assuming the KGL bill doesn’t give too much away to coal, we need to do whatever it takes to pass it. This just might be the “change” voters were looking for: not just in policy outcomes, but in rhetoric and advocacy as well.