Friday, December 01, 2006

The Evangelical-Republican Alliance begins to Crumble

The following is an interesting article sent to me by my friend Mark Jackson. It is republished here with permission from Strategic Forecasting, Inc. at While I do not necessarily agree with everything said here it certainly brings up some points we need to consider. What it suggests is that there is a growing split in the Christian Coalition between Evangelicals with a concern for the social Gospel, and Evangelicals whose interests lie elsewhere. BW3

The Widening Gaps in the Evangelical-Republican Coalition
By Bart Mongoven

The Christian Coalition of America announced Nov. 28 that it has asked its president-elect, Joel Hunter, to resign. The news came a week after Hunter told the coalition's board that he wanted the organization to take on a new set of issues, particularly poverty, AIDS and the environment. The board reportedly said it did not think the group's grassroots membership was ready for such a shift, and that Hunter would not be given an opportunity to follow through on these plans.

The story behind Hunter's forced resignation reveals far more than a difference of opinion over the organization's future direction. Membership in the Christian Coalition has plunged from the millions to the thousands, four state chapters have bolted and its budget is a fraction of what it used to be. However, while the group no longer stands as the political vanguard of the conservative Christian movement, its internal disagreements do represent in a nutshell a major problem faced by the religious right and, by extension, by the Republican Party in the coming two years. At the center of the conflict is the recognition that the religious views of evangelical Christians and the politics of the American right are diverging after two decades of confluence.

In essence, the overlap between the libertarian Republican point of view and that of religious conservatives has dissolved during the past decade of Republican control of government. Historically, the religious conservatives and secular libertarians justified their advocacy of a small federal government for very different reasons. For secular libertarians, a small government was the central objective; for the religious conservatives, small government was an element of a strategy to reduce the power -- or at least slow the growth -- of institutions purveying secular values. The growth of government over the past 10 years has suggested to evangelicals that the strategy does not work. The Faith-Based Initiative, for instance, is seen as a small move in a positive direction, but one that also has done nothing to displace secular federal government activity.

What comes next will be guided by three variables: First, whether Christian leaders together find a new path forward that balances politics and faith; second, whether the GOP changes its policies and approaches to accommodate the evangelicals' new direction; and third, whether the Democrats find a way to accommodate at least some of the evangelicals' wishes.

Libertarianism: A Goal or a Tool

The alliance between the Republican Party and evangelical Christians developed over two decades -- and the Christian Coalition was the most important player in creating this alliance. The Christian Coalition championed the argument that secular forces were degrading the moral underpinning of the United States and that the federal government -- through, for example, large and expensive welfare programs -- was the largest single instigator of the growth of these secular forces.

The Christian Coalition -- and the evangelical right in general -- argued that in addition to strengthening powerful secular organizations, federal government institutions are inherently hostile to religion. Particularly in the earlier years of the coalition, the evangelical opposition to the federal judiciary was as focused on countering a liberal reading of the Establishment Clause as it was on Roe v. Wade. Throughout the Reagan presidency, evangelicals battled judicial prohibitions against any government endorsement of religion -- whether federal, state or local -- which had come to mean any expression of religion in a government context (school Christmas plays, creches at city halls, religious groups meeting in schools, etc.). Evangelicals became driven by the idea that the federal government was not merely secular, but after the Warren Court, it was aggressively secular or even anti-religious.

In addition, most conservative evangelicals also held that the traditional family should be the center of an individual's life, and saw a large active federal government as replacing traditional family roles in many ways. Evangelicals spoke out against welfare programs -- such as the WIC program that in early inceptions penalized unwed mothers for marrying -- as threatening to the traditional family structure.

In this context, an alliance with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party made perfect sense. Libertarian Republicans come in two major factions: ideological libertarians who are simply against large, active government, regulation and high taxes; and federalists who oppose a large federal government and see the most effective government as one that is closest to the people. Most members of the Christian Coalition fell into the latter group. They were not opposed to government helping people per se, but they wanted it to reflect local values, which in most of the South and Midwest were often quite different from the coasts. Further, the federalism approach to governance fit perfectly into the state-by-state approach to abortion that the Christian Coalition began to advance in the 1980s.

Libertarian Republicans were always uneasy with this alliance. Many libertarians see abortion, for instance, as part of that vast realm where government has no right to intrude. Others were opposed to abortion or ambivalent, but were upset by the evangelical drive against the Warren Court's position on the Establishment Clause. Finally, many libertarians saw Christian conservatives as desiring to inject religion into government wherever possible.

These are the hazards when one group's ideological ideal is another group's strategy.

The leaders of the two sides of this coalition, Newt Gingrich representing the libertarians and Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, maintained the careful balance between the libertarian and evangelical approaches long enough to take power in 1995. With power came a sense of optimism on both the libertarian and the evangelical sides that the large, secular government would be reined in. In 2000, that sense was heightened when the last impediment -- a Democratic president -- was dislodged in favor of a pro-business, pro-federalism evangelical.

Problems with Power

The past six years have not offered as many bright spots as either side expected. Mostly, this is due to natural disappointment that more idealistic activists feel once in power (it is far more difficult to achieve ideals than it appears from outside of power). One example is a severe disenchantment with the Bush administration's ability to rein in government. From the libertarian perspective, the deficit is back, government is bigger and the programs that Republicans promised to abolish 10 years ago are still in place. Gingrich came to power talking about dismantling Cabinet departments; instead, Republicans have added one. Furthermore, libertarians increasingly argue that the Republican Party has been taken over by evangelicals, and they fret that the party no longer has a place for them.

For the evangelicals, the strategy has not worked as well as they had hoped either. Roe v. Wade still stands, the Establishment Clause is still read mostly as it was 20 years ago and secular federal government programs are growing. The victories that the evangelical right can account for have not satisfied the grassroots. In fact, three-quarters through George W. Bush's eight-year presidency, the only solid evangelical victories have been two Supreme Court appointments (one only modestly acceptable) and Bush's consistent opposition to federal funding of stem cell research. Not only do evangelicals have little to cheer for, but both victories relied on the president's support -- they have won nothing from Congress.

The sense among the evangelical grassroots is that the Republican Party has used them, but only paid lip service to their goals, aspirations and values. The scandal surrounding Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., hit at the same time as the release of a book by former White House aide David Kuo, who alleged that the nonreligious White House staff scoffed at the evangelicals, referring to them as "crazies" and treating them like a captive political group; on this last point akin to how Democrats treat African-American voters.

As the dispute at the leadership of the Christian Coalition shows, however, evangelicals are far less captive than many thought. A solid coalition within the evangelical movement appears to be moving toward a new political approach that adds poverty, environment and health care to the familiar Christian conservative issues of abortion, gay marriage and public decency.

The leadership of the evangelical movement is beginning to split on these issues. In addition to Hunter, influential evangelicals such as conservative Wheaton College President Duane Litfin and the more liberal Jim Wallis are increasingly pressing for a new issue set. At the core of this new political outlook is a growing sense that the libertarian battle is lost, but the Christian mission of helping the poor remains. Evangelicals argue that by shunning aggressively secular government involvement in issues relating to poverty and other things, libertarian approaches were preferable, but they now add that failing in the libertarian mission is not an excuse to stop helping the poor or working toward other Christian missions such as environmental stewardship.

The Republican Perspective

As evangelical support for the libertarian approach erodes, the ball is in the Republicans' court to determine whether to try to keep the evangelicals in the fold, or to hope the party can win enough religious conservatives by sticking with its current ideological approach that champions traditional values without changing course on issues such as environment or poverty policy.

The evangelicals' emerging interest in government poverty programs, for instance, represents an acceptance of what they see as the new reality. Evangelicals no longer view American culture as responsive to propositional truths and preaching. Instead, they see a culture that responds to attractive lifestyles and communities. As a result, successful evangelical churches are de-emphasizing sin and issues of personal responsibility, and emphasizing compassion, open-mindedness and values that open Christians to progressive ideals and solutions.

The Christian Coalition's decision to move away from these issues is indicative of the Republican Party's instinctive response to stay with the current approach. The Christian Coalition is a shadow of its former self for a reason, however. In addition to no longer seeing the libertarian approach as the best strategic path, evangelicals are starting to change their minds about some policy issues. Climate change has emerged as the clearest symbol of this changing position. Evangelical leaders, including Pat Robertson, have publicly said they were wrong on the issue of climate change and that they now believe human activity is changing the climate. If Republicans want to hold the evangelical block, they will have to adjust to these shifting positions. The question is whether the evangelical leaders and the Republican Party leadership find themselves on the same page, or whether the relationship between the evangelicals and the political system continues to evolve outside the bounds of one political party. If the evangelicals take the initiative and begin to follow voices like Hunter's, the GOP will be hard-pressed not to follow. The party faces two conflicting problems: Many moderates and libertarians are moving away from the party due to the perception that the religious right has too much power, and at the same time the evangelicals have found that the party has little to offer them.

Before evangelicals give up on the Republican Party, they would have to conclude that the GOP has not delivered on abortion (which will remain a key issue no matter what) -- and that it will not deliver. Democrats are not as unsympathetic on the issue as they once were. For example, in the last congressional elections, Democrats offered anti-abortion candidates such as Bob Casey -- whose father was denied a chance to speak at the Democratic Convention because of his anti-abortion stance 14 years ago. Previously, some in the religious right might have shunned such candidates just because a vote for Democratic candidates meant contributing to the creation of a Democratic Congress and dealing a blow to the federal anti-abortion campaign. However, if evangelicals no longer believe the Republicans are truly committed to evangelical goals, such larger national strategies will no longer influence local voting.

With these cross-currents in place, the Republicans will follow the evangelicals because the party has started down a path that is difficult to leave. Other than in the new "solid South," support for Republicans is eroding nationwide. The mountain states are increasingly being settled by wealthy retirees from the coasts, who bring with them more liberal, less-individualist political views. In shunning almost all pro-choice candidates, such as Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., and then Sen. Lincoln Chaffee, R-R.I., the Republican Party has lost most of the Northeast and the West Coast. Without the evangelicals, the Republicans have no geographic base of support and a hold on few major ideological constituencies besides the pro-business libertarians. The evangelicals, therefore, hold the power to steer the party, and it appears that, despite the Christian Coalition's position, the evangelical community is headed toward the middle -- and on some particular issues, toward what used to be considered the left.


Gordon Hackman said...

I think some of the political shift among evangelicals has to do with the fact that what Robert Webber calls "The Younger Evangelicals" are shifting away from or outright rejecting the close association of Evangelical Christianity with the Republican Party platform. Many younger evangelicals question the focus of the Christian right on certain issues to the exclusion of others that they see as equally biblical and important. I think that questioning your parents values, (though not necessarily rejecting them) is part of growing up, and trying establish your own identity.

I also think many younger evangelicals, as well as many other Christians, have grown weary of the culture war rhetoric and disposition, and are asking if this is really what the gospel is all about (I'm among this group). For many of us, the focus now is less on party politics and political victories, and is more on, to use a Stanley Hauerwas phrase, simply being the church, which, of course, has its own political implications.

I remember reading "Blnded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?" by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, several years ago. The authors pointed out then that nearly two decades of political involvement by Christians had produced very little in the way of lasting acheivements, and even the things we had acheived were easily undone when those with opposite views to ours got into power.

I don't think that Christians should avoid politics altogether, but I don't think we should put much stock in them either.

Ben Witherington said...

In an interesting development today, the Clergy Council criticized Rick Warren for inviting Barak Obama to a summit meeting on AIDS at Saddleback. I guess that was too much like dancing with the Devil for some of those folks on that Council.

Steven Manskar said...


ABC's Nightline program last night included a segment that addressed issues raised in the article you've posted. The piece highlighted the resignation of Rev. Joel Hunter before assuming the presidency of the Christian Coalition and the attacks agains Rick Warren for inviting Sen. Obama to address the Saddleback AIDS Conference.

It seems there is a growing divide between Evangelicals who are seeking to take Jesus' teachings on compassion and justice more seriously and not focusing exclusively on the "moral" issues of abortion and gay marriage.

The CC is aparently more interested in keeping its base happy so that it can raise money by focusing on the "threat" of gay marriage and abortion. It was disturbing to me how the CC leaders and Rev. Schenk of the National Clergy Council dismissed the Biblical mandates to care for the poor and marginalized in favor of continued oppostion to gay marriage and abortion rights.

Thanks for posting the article and for your witness.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Steve: Yes you are quite right. Its disturbing. But they will be more disturbed when they see my book coming out late next year--- The Seven Deadly Sins of Evangelical America.



Rev.Kev said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rev.Kev said...

I confess that 8 years ago I never even would have considered voting for anyone not a Republican, but lately I have been more and more disappionted with the GOP. It seems as though the GOP and the pundits who support them are only concerned with the bottom line. Why doesn't the CC care about that? What should the government do about the poor & marginalized? Perhaps the Libertarians are on the right track...I think it was Tony Evans who pointed out that the only reason the government is involved in welfare is becaused the Church has largely ignored its "Biblical mandates to care for the poor and marginalized." Am I being naive?

Ben Witherington said...

No Rev. Ken, you are not being naive, its just that we are all beginning to wise up about what's really been going on. The good news is this "while winners win, losers learn". Maybe we will learn.


Exiled in mainstream said...

Dear Dr Ben

speaking as a first time commentator and some time reader. Thanks for your blog - a breath of fresh air in a weary world.

I'll put my cards on the table. I'm an outsider, I'm an English ex-pat in the US, I am a christian, I would be considered by many in the church as left-wing but by many on the left as an inconsistent centrist. To put it bluntly I don't really fit anywhere. You know, I'm a human being rather than a label.

I think your analysis seems plausible, and I think Gordon makes a thoughtful contribution here. What worries me about the conflation of evangelicalism and conservatism is three-fold.

First, it turns many away from Christ. I know many people attracted by the Christ they have read about in the gospel who have seen the antics of the usual suspects, who need not be named, and have struggled and turned away. Was this a reason or excuse? I don't know, but I think at least in some cases this was a real stumbling block.

Second, the reality is that the very word "evangelical" has become untenable for many people. A searching friend of mine once described his sense that "evangelical" equated to either "hate-filled bigot, or gullible idiot". Sure that's unfair - but he could truthfully point to those who described themselves as evangelical whose behaviour fitted his description perfectly. It struck me as terribly sad that such a hope-filled word should become so traduced.

Third, and most tragically it has limited evangelicals themselves, in both their personal Christ-likeness, their potential for growth, and their potential to serve, reach and influence the world.

The clergy council behavior genuinely disturbed me. Checking their website though I'm afraid my cynicism gland is stimulated when the most prominent link on the homepage is to give them a donation... :/

Thanks once again for your blog and I look forward to your book

Elvis Elvisberg said...

steve wrote: It seems there is a growing divide between Evangelicals who are seeking to take Jesus' teachings on compassion and justice more seriously and not focusing exclusively on the "moral" issues of abortion and gay marriage.

You know, this really gets to the heart of things. Because the fact is that large portions of the country view gay marriage and the right to choose as moral issues-- and they come out the other way.

But there are lots of moral issues, of the sort to which Joel Hunter wanted to devote some time, that command broader support.

Barack Obama was on Jay Leno tonight, and in response to a question about the hoopla and excitement surrounding him, Obama said something more eloquent than, "people are projecting onto me their desire for a less rancorous type of politics. We can disagree without being disagreeable."

On this view, the split within the Republican Party, and among political evangelical leaders, is just a part of a larger fatigue with hyperpartisan, anger-based politics.

But the legislative process isn't really about outrage; it's about compromise. And I think Obama is right, that the electorate is sick of how polarized, unproductive, and marketing-based, rather than policy-based, politics has been of late.

Thing is, if you feel deeply that any abortion is a moral outrage, then it's only natural to come to politics driven by outrage, with a view that anyone who disagrees with you is on the side of evil (this is all the more intensified in a two-party system). And many people really do feel that way about abortion; but the number of people who feel differently won't allow them to ever get their views into law.

We can go through periods of heightened anger and partisanship, punctuated by bouts of fatigue and a more constructive politics, but I don't see how that undercurrent ever goes away.

Thanks for posting this article, Dr. Witherington. It's accurate in its broad conclusions-- there are fissures within the evangelical political movement, and the Republican Party. The writer has an unfortunate tendency to make unwarrantedly stark statements. Ie, he writes that Newt Gingrich led the libertarians and Ralph Reed led the politically active evangelicals (there was less clear leadership, and more overlap, than his statement implied), and that the GOP kicked Lincoln Chaffee to the curb (actually, they cut his primary opponent off at the knees and poured money into his general election, only to see him lose for the sole reason of his party affiliation).

Ben Witherington said...

If you know the tree by the fruit it bears, then its understandable that many people are going to associate the word Evangelical with some unplesant and even unChristian things.

What concerns me as much as the reactionary politics of anger, is the reactionary politics of fear, and fear based practices-- a good example of which is the war in Iraq. If the issue had really been Saddam Hussein that could have been handled by means of special ops, to say the least.

No, what we are dealing with is a colossal over-reaction to our anger and fear, which is precisely the reaction terrorists want. The function of terrorism, since it can't muster a real war, is to strike terror into the hearts of one's large enemy hoping they will over-react, over-spend, and so waste their enormous resources in fruitless and pointless rearguard actions.

I can only imagine what would have happened if we spent all this money now wasted on the war on solving major global problems and root causes like poverty and ignorance through being a gracious and compassionate force for good. It certainly couldn't have turned out worst than this!



Elvis Elvisberg said...

Well, we certainly agree on that, Dr. Witherington. The politics of fear are always and everywhere a potentially dangerous force. If you focus only on the evil of your enemy-- and the enemy that we are facing is about as evil as can be imagined-- you can excuse away any of your own errors or flaws.

Here is one of the most chilling quotes I've come across in the past few years: "the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country." --Hermann Goring.

I'd just add that the domestic politics of anger play a role in enabling the foreign policy of fear.

That is, if you've already decided that your domestic political opponents are a bunch of evil deluded malevolent losers, and the head of your party goes out there and says that we should live in fear of an attack from Iraq... you're just not as inclined to give opposing arguments as fair a hearing.

Here's one conservative columnist's mea culpa for supporting the Iraq war-- but note that it's more of a hate letter to the left than an examination of the writer's own mistakes. Clearly, being part of the favored team in domestic politics was-- and remains-- a more important consideration to this writer, and many, many others, than actually looking at the arguments and making a rational, common-sense-based determination.

As to what we could better have done with the money... well, we're spending about, what, $8 billion per month in Iraq? Yeah, every person in America over age 12 could probably come up with at least a dozen better things to have done with our money.

lehall said...

A comment from the "other side". I grew up Christian and very closely tied to the democratic party. My grandparents were loyal members of the senior democrats, largely because democrats supported integration. I thought I had good Christian reasons to support democrats and felt totally alienated from the Religious Right (though sharing Christian commitments). I am now a seminarian at a liberal-leaning institution. I am no more comfortable with the Christian Coalition or religious right, but I have also lost hope in the political left. I have appreciated the work of Jim Wallis for a few years now. But I am concerned that in trying to bring political concern for poverty into the Christian consciousness and in reaction to the link between Christians and the Right, he has recently appeared too close to the Democrats. Is this a fair concern?

Eric Dondero said...

And ironically, many libertarians, especially those in the Libertarian Party, refuse to join the Republican Party for fear that it has been taken over by evagelical conservatives.

This "libertarian-Christian conservative" split is way over blown. There are so many areas where we libertarians have agreements with religious conservatives. School choice and rights of home schoolers for one. Gun rights for a number two. Tax cuts for married couples for a number three. I could go on.

Don't fall for the liberal media hype that the GOP coalition is falling apart.

I speak as a libertarian Republican. We must ALL UNITE against the greater threat of American liberalism AND fighting the Islamo-Fascists!

Eric at

rev mike said...

I recently read "American Theocracy" by Kevin Phillips. The book is tendentious, long, and worthwhile.

Phillips is a northeastern, secular Republican best known for writing "The Emerging Republican Majority" in the Nixon era, in which he accurately predicted Republican expansion in the south.

Phillips decries what he perceives as excessive evangelical/fundamentalist influence in the Republican party, and sees this influence as ultimately reducing the Republicans to a minority party.

He accuses evangelicals of being so preoccupied with millenialist concerns that they have neglected the present realities of poverty and the environment. He is no fan at all of Tim La Haye.

He also criticizes current Republican leadership for ruinous deficit spending, overextended delusions of empire, and corrupt pursuit of the interests of Big Oil.

In all of these areas, millenialism, deficits, and ambitions of empire, he compares the U.S. with other failed empires of the past: Rome, Spain, Britain, and the Hapsburgs.

He frequently returns to the Terri Schiavo episode as an exemplar of evangelical religion run amok.

As controversial (and tedious) as this book may be, it comes from an author who has a remarkable track record of political prediction over the last thirty years.

The book is all the more remarkable in that it was published before the 2006 election, whose outcome the book accurately foresaw.

Anonymous said...

Matthew 25:41-46 is where the Biblical mandate to feed the poor, care for the marginalized, and clothe the needy comes from. I find it odd that there are conservative Christians who are not aware of the basic tenants of their religion.

Unknown said...

The Evangelical Republican Party (ERP) has thrown the traditional conservative Republican Party down the path of destruction, and is to blame for the resurgence of the Democratic successes. The Evangelical Christians are also to blame for the historic mess we are in today and their tax-exempt status should be denied. My dear, great country is dissolving before me and it is they who have destroyed it. Remove them from the political powers of Washington and let's begin to rebuild our wonderful country once again.