God Dem

Illustration by Darrow

At the start of the Fox News–sponsored Republican presidential debate last week in South Carolina, Brit Hume made a disappointing announcement: that because many of the candidates had already issued statements of “regret and condolence” concerning the expiration of Jerry Falwell, the moderators would seek no further comment on his life and legacy. I say “disappointing” because I was eager to hear what Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney had to say about him. Not that there was much doubt about what the gist would have been. But it would have been nice to have their acts of ritual self-abasement captured on video for future YouTube-able reference.

As it was, one had to make do with the candidates’ written encomiums, among which McCain’s—which lauded Falwell as “a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country”—was typical, if comparatively muted in its degree of obeisance. (Mike Huckabee, for instance, declared Falwell “a great man and a great influence for America and for Christ.”)

The view of Falwell among most sensible Americans is, of course, quite different: He was a hater, a lard-assed charlatan, an ostentatiously deranged clown. (What other conclusion could possibly be reached after l’affaire Tinky Winky?) That the GOP wannabes differ from this indisputable assessment owes largely to political calculation—to the perceived imperative not to get crosswise with the party’s vast Evangelical wing. No news there, I grant you. What interests me, however, is the cluster of assumptions lurking behind the calculation: that Falwell, having been among the progenitors of the religious right, continued to have great sway with it; that the movement he created still reflects his predispositions and temperament; and that, therefore, even in death, Falwell will continue to cast a long shadow over the 2008 campaign.

It’s not just the Republican candidates who share these assumptions, by the way, but liberals, moderates, and the mainstream media. They were embedded in most of the obituaries and commentary that flowed in the days after Falwell punched his ticket. The only trouble is that, on closer inspection, nearly all of them turn out to be wrong—and wrong in ways that may have important implications for the campaign that lies ahead.

A good place to start is with the Evangelical movement itself. Accounting for more than a quarter of the American population, it’s certainly a force to be reckoned with, not least politically. In 2004, Evangelicals accounted for fully 40 percent of the votes cast for George W. Bush. (Another 8 percent each were provided by traditionalist Catholics and traditionalist mainline Protestants). But unlike in Falwell’s heyday, the center of gravity of the Evangelical world is no longer the rural South; it’s the suburbs and exurbs of the West, Southwest, and Midwest. The movement is younger, better educated, and richer than it was at the height of the Moral Majority. And it’s centered increasingly around the burgeoning megachurch phenomenon.

The face of that phenomenon plainly isn’t, and never was, Jerry Falwell—or Pat Robertson, James Dobson, or any of the other superannuated Elmer Gantryesque boobs whom the press typically paints as such. The face of the modern Evangelical movement belongs instead to Rick Warren, the pastor of Orange County, California’s Saddleback Church (regular attendance: 20,000) and the author of The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold more hardback copies (over 25 million) than any nonfiction book in history.

Now, on many social issues, Warren is just as conservative as Falwell. Abortion, bad. Gay marriage, bad. Etc. But whereas Falwell described aids as “the wrath of a just God against homosexuals,” Warren has donated millions of dollars to fight HIV in Africa. Whereas Falwell bemoaned the emerging strain of Evangelical environmentalism as “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus,” Warren declares, “The environment is a moral issue.” And regarding his pro-life stance, Warren says, “I’m just not rabid about it.”

Not surprisingly, Warren is at pains to distance himself from Falwell and his cohort. “I’m just tired of having other people represent me and represent the hundreds of thousands of churches where the pastors I’ve trained would nowhere, no way, relate to some of the supposed spokesman of a previous generation,” he told a Pew Forum gathering in 2005. Among Evangelicals, in fact, there was widespread horror and disgust with Falwell’s comments after 9/11, when he blamed the attacks on “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays.”

“The plate tectonics are shifting,” says Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution fellow and author of Public Matters: Politics, Policy, and Religion in the 21st Century. “Many younger Evangelicals are uncomfortable with what they regard as a narrowing of the religious agenda. They regard some of the older leaders as extreme, embarrassing. Meanwhile, some of the more conservative Evangelicals are rethinking their abandonment of the traditional Protestant mistrust of salvation in the public sphere. I think all this represents a slow shift in the direction of a broader and more centrist discussion.”

None of which is to say that Evangelicals aren’t still, by and large, “values voters.” But, as Galston points out, even among traditionalist Evangelicals, personal values (such as honesty and responsibility) and family values (such as trying to protect kids from sex and violence on TV and the Internet) rank higher in importance than social issues such as abortion and gay rights. This helps explain how, in 2004, foreign policy turned into a values issue for these voters, and why the character assaults on John Kerry were pivotal, especially for traditionalist Catholics, who swung toward Bush dramatically.

Galston and other experts believe that Bush’s trouncing of Kerry among Evangelicals (by 78 to 22 percent) almost certainly will prove a topping-out point for the GOP. “For a community as large and diverse as Evangelicals,” Pew Forum fellow John Green observes, “for somebody to get almost four-fifths of the vote, we’re pretty close to the theoretical maximum.” To Green’s way of thinking, that astronomical support has much to do with the “special relationship” Bush has with Evangelicals. “It is unlikely the Republicans will be able to repeat Bush’s success with these religious groups in the near future,” he says—and, indeed, Democrats took back a few percentage points in the 2006 elections from both Evangelicals and Catholics.

And what of 2008? On the GOP side, one of the persistent mysteries of the campaign so far is how on earth the party’s three leading candidates could be Giuliani, McCain, and Romney—not one of whom has convinced many religious voters that he is one of them. And it’s worth considering that the explanation has to do with the changing nature and priorities of the Evangelical electorate, and in particular with the waning of its most culturally extreme elements. Certainly we need some kind of avant-garde theory to cope with the anomaly of Giuliani, whose social-liberal record and, ahem, colorful private life should long ago have consigned him to the Falwellian dustbin for discarded pagans. But because of the sense that the fight against terrorism is the predominant issue of the age, religious voters seem remarkably open to him.

Equally intriguing are the possibilities on the Democratic side. After 2004, all manner of analyses asserted that the party was suffering from a “God gap.” In particular, there was the research that showed a precipitous decline in the percentage of Americans who regard the Democrats as friendly toward religion—from 42 percent in 2003 to 29 percent in 2005.

But the Democratic gains, however slight, among religious voters in 2006 suggest that the party may, just may, be closing the God gap—a very big deal, if true. In 2006, Democrats won 27 percent of the Evangelical vote across the country and even more in certain contests. “If the Democrats could win 35 percent,” says Green, “many races, even in the South, would become very competitive … In the big swing states of the Midwest, 35 percent … might guarantee a Democratic victory.”

This is why Galston, an architect of the New Democratic faith and a former Clinton White House official, has been pounding on the party to repair its irreligious image. And he is not alone. “Democrats finally got the message—2004 was a wake-up call,” he says, and it’s hard to deny the evidence thus far on the presidential hustings. Here you have Hillary Clinton, eschewing the language that describes abortion as a morally neutral medical procedure and arguing instead for an aggressive strategy to reduce its frequency. And there you have Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate most at ease in talking about the importance of his faith since … well, Bill Clinton.

No one should discount the inherent difficulties Democrats face in dealing with religion. Unlike Republicans, who because of the God-fearing composition of their electoral coalition can ignore nonreligious voters, Democrats must undertake a balancing act: reaching out to the devout without offending their secular base. But for the first time in a long time, hairline cracks seem to be appearing in the edifice of opposition they face from religious voters—just as Giuliani may be discovering that Evangelicals aren’t as monolithic a voting bloc as everyone has presumed. Here’s hoping these trends continue unabated, if for no other reason than that they’d cause Falwell to start spinning like a dervish in his grave.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

God Dem