Reimagining the Politics of Evangelical Christians

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) waits for his arrival outside Centro de la Familia evangelical church January 28, 2012. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Since the 1960s, Christian leaders have found their voice in the political sphere. Siding almost exclusively with the Republican Party, the religious right became a powerful force in America during the 1980s and 1990s. They pursued conservative values such as pro-life policies, prayer in school, and traditional marriage. 

But after generations of Evangelical Christians moving further towards the right, many found that their partisan politics were pushing people away. Now, a new generation of young leaders are calling for change and more moderation. They hope to redefine what it means to be a political Christian without the stereotypes of the religious right. 

Brandan Robertson is founder of The Revangelical Movement, an organization that promotes an alternative Evangelical perspective. He joins The Takeaway with Krista Tippett, host of On Being, a public radio program that explores religion and spirituality in our daily life, to discuss the changing face of Christian politics.

Robertson, who has no relation to the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, says that the modern religious right movement among Evangelicals started around 50 years ago with the goal of attaining political power in the United States. However, he says that nowadays young Evangelical leaders are calling for a new, more moderate approach because many feel that the current movement is "inconsistent with Jesus."

"Millennial Evangelicals aren't simply switching from conservative to liberal," he says. "What's actually going on is we're re-examining the words of Jesus, we're re-examining the principals that we claim to live our lives by from a religious perspective, and that's causing us to change our views on things like poverty and immigration reform. We're even looking at things like marriage equality—we might have a traditional Evangelical theology of homosexuality, but we look at that and see that it has no contradiction with the political position that the LGBTQ community has the right to get married."

Robertson adds that while the fundamentalist, right wing Evangelical perspective may not be the path forward for millennial Evangelicals, the liberal perspective is not a total fit either, leading many to seek a new middle ground.

"Our theology may remain the same, but the politics need to match the theology and that's not what the religious right, the Democrats or the Republicans are standing for," he says. "We want to stand for the common good of all people." 

But is Robertson's position really representative of a larger movement, or is he an outlier? Is there a real push to rebrand the Evangelical movement in America right now?

The Push to Rebrand the Movement

"I'd like to be a little bit provocative and pull the lens back farther—I actually think the moral majority was the outlier," says On Being's Krista Tippett. "The people who we have come to identify as Evangelicals now are the same group who in the early 20th century withdrew from politics, withdrew from public life and said this is the age of world war and global economic depression. They said, 'We're going to focus on inner life and we're going to focus on personal salvation.'"

Tippett says that in the late 20th century there was a strident reaction against seclusion, leading to a reemergence of Evangelicals into the public sphere, something that she says people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell came to encapsulate. While that stance has made headlines over the last 20 years, Tippett says that these parties were never meant to represent all Evangelicals.

She says that the national news media has played a large role in forming the belief that all Evangelicals held the same ideals. Tippett says that during the early days of the modern movement, journalists started reporting that 40 percent of Americans identified as Evangelical Christians, and lumped them all together into a large box.

"Forty percent of the American people is and has always been a very diverse group of voices," says Tippett. "I think that what Brandan represents is the untold story that started to happen immediately after the turn of the century and through the Bush Administration. Evangelicals themselves and not just millennials [started] rebelling against being represented by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the public sphere. They've been looking back at their core values—all of those stereotypes and those boxes about who Evangelicals are and what they believe was a very short lived thing and never was the whole story."

When looking back in history, one can also see that Evangelicals were central to many political movements that might normally be considered "liberal." Tippett points out that the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls was held at a Methodist church, and that Christians were a large part of the fight against U.S. slavery. But why have these details seemingly been forgotten from the movement?

Tippett emphasized that media attention has focused on people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, which has skewed public perception of Evangelicals and hasn't given enough of a voice to other leaders like theologian and social activist Ron Sider or Jim Wallis of the Sojourners community. She said there were a number of "stunning things happening in the National Association of Evangelicals during the George W. Bush Administration," like refocusing the Evangelical agenda on global poverty, and introducing discussions about climate change and the natural world.

"It's been a more complex picture that just wasn't covered," she says. "I think Brandan and these next generation Evangelicals are really gaining a public voice and expressing something. It's still complicated—the stereotypes don't fit that Evangelicals fall on one side of the spectrum. It didn't fit when the Seneca Falls meeting, which was a core moment in what we would later call women's liberation, happened in a holiness church. It didn't fit in the early 20th century when we started to think that Evangelicals are people who are primarily against abortion and against gay rights. Now the picture is more complicated too."

Tippett says the statistics on young Evangelicals support the complex nature of this group and at times paint a picture that is politically confusing. She says the data shows that this group of young people are less in favor of abortion, far more in favor of LGBT issues and gay marriage than their parents' generation, and even partner with liberals on issues like immigration, climate change and global poverty.

"These young Evangelicals will say that abortion is something they theologically oppose, but they're trying to find, as they would say, faithful ways to take that up as an issue," says Tippett. "Even if they hold that position, which looks like a Republican position, they may not be finding it a useful way to spend their energy working on the legality of abortion."

Tippett says instead of pursuing legal challenges to abortion, many Evangelicals are fighting abortion by refocusing their efforts on helping people avoid pregnancy.

"Again, even when the values look Republican or Democrat, it may be an ecclesiastical response rather than a political response, and that's a big shift," she adds.

Want to hear more about the changing role of religion in America? Check out our series "Young Nation Under God?

Guests:

Brandan Robertson and Krista Tippett

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson and Jillian Weinberger

Editors:

T.J. Raphael

Comments [7]

Christopher Densmore

I don't think evangelical can claim credit for the First Woman's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. The core organizers were all Quakers (or in the case of Martha Wright, a former Quaker) with the exception of Elizabeth Stanton who was introduced to the group by Lucretia Mott. The initial meeting was held in the home of Jane Hunt, a Quaker, the Declaration of Sentiments was written at the home of Thomas and Mary Ann M'Clintock (Quakers, Thomas being the former Clerk of Genesee Yearly Meeting) the men who came forward to help chair the convention were James Mott (Quaker, and Lucretia's husband) and Thomas M'Clintock (already mentioned), In the immediate aftermath of the convention, a religious defense was made of convention in the press by Elizabeth M'Clintock (daughter of Mary Ann and Thomas) and Elizabeth Stanton. Unless we are using a very broad definition of "evangelical" I don't see an evangelic among this lot of liberal Quakers. Yes it was in the Wesleyan Methodist Church (which was far more advanced on questions of anti-slavery and making a place for women that the regular Methodist churches, but the minister of that church left town, leaving the doors of the church locked. But the convention went on with the help of a boy who managed to climb in through a window and open the front door.

Christopher Densmore, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College

Mar. 24 2014 11:37 AM
Ann from Seattle

How can Evangelical Christians be in favor of "comprehensive immigration reform" while caring about our environment? There is a limit to the number of people our country can support. The periodic droughts in the upper mid-west and now in California emphasize this.

While the P.E.W. Hispanic Center officially says there are between 11 and 12 million immigrants who are here illegally, I heard a P.E.W demographer on the radio, a couple of years ago, say that the actual number could be anywhere between 11 and 16 million. He said no one actually knew.

If the illegal immigrants are given legal status to remain, what is to stop their friends and relatives from legally visiting them, and then (oops) forgetting to leave?

Immigrants have more children. Hispanic adolescent girls have the highest birth rate of any group in the U.S. Government projections, based on 2010 data, estimates that 24% of female Hispanics will give birth as teens.

We need to reduce the number of immigrants to this country, and, like almost every other country, we should carefully look at the ones we admit. The land will support only so many.

Feb. 18 2014 06:42 PM
RT from Santa Clara

Ms. Tippett emphasizes an evolution from some kind of transcendent genesis at Seneca Falls into a sclerosis of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT attitudes and finally to a broad embrace of less judgmental concern for spiritual and economic poverty. Or something like that.

Interesting.

This ignores the inescapable history of the American Evangelical Christian movement with respect to murderous segregation, unyielding nationalism, corrosive anti-socialism leading to the persecutions of McCarthyism and ultimately 60,000 American soldiers (and literally countless others) dead for NOTHING in southeast Asia. That's what Evangelical Christianity did for the United States. It wasn't the inspired voices at Seneca Falls OR the garish polyester-robed and helmet-haired cretinoid TV clowns like Robertson and Falwell that characterize this narrative - or even henna-dyed Ronald Reagan disingenuously Staggering From The Spirit on stage with Southern Baptist preachers while Nancy threw the chicken bones with Joan Quigley behind the curtain that describes this American Experience.

It was the likes of Strom Thurmond and Mendel Rivers - sociopathic, lunatic monsters with real, evil power in horrified recoil from Harry Truman's Committee on Civil Rights and the evolving Democratic Party - who exhorted a poorly educated, resentful and easily herded God-Fearing America to keep throwing bodies into a bottomless pit. I saw it happen, my dears, up close.

Maybe a new generation of spiritually oriented Americans would like to bring the Good News to the people with an aspect free of its historical burden of privilege, pusillanimous nationalism and racism. Good luck with that. For many, however, it's more than the spectacle of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker strip-mining their rube yokel marks of their life savings to finance jewel-encrusted dog kennels that must be overcome in order to reconsider Reception of the Word. It's the picture of death at My Lai that wafts through memory. For this, possibly, Jesus Weeps.

Feb. 18 2014 05:44 PM
John A

Two issues that the religo-political right need to spend not one additional minute of energy on:
Climate change denial,
Evolution denial.
Stop this embarrassment.

Feb. 18 2014 03:50 PM
John A.

The American version of Political Islam, the Moral Majority, unfortunately has destroyed the concept of religion itself in the minds of millions of the youngest Americans. Look at the numbers for Anti-theism bestsellers, and for membership in the atheist movement. Luckily, this is not the only religion available, just the loudest.

Feb. 18 2014 03:22 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I thought you said,"Revenge-jel-local."
I absolutely love the term "outlier," and plan on using it all the time. Its connotations to "Out" and "liar" is cracking me up.
I guess I'm hearing things today and will get my ears checked out.

Feb. 18 2014 11:58 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Of course the Evangelical community - which spans different Protestant denominations - spans many different theological positions.

Feb. 18 2014 09:47 AM

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