June 26, 2008

Evangelicals Are Cracking Me Up

There have been a ton of stories in the news over the last week swarming around religion and politics.  Its early in the general election campaign so the candidates are jockeying for position, trying to define themselves on a national and not just a party level, so there are the usual overtures towards religious voting blocks taking place.  Out of that has come the usual avalanche of pontificating on which candidate is gaining the most traction amongst religious/value voters and how that might affect the November election.  Since the elections of 2000 and 2004 the most coveted slice of that pie has been the ubiquitous "evangelical voter," so not surprisingly a lot of the ink being spilt has been done so in an attempt to explain where these voters are trending.  Fueling this "religious voter" love-in in the last couple of days has been the release of the always interesting U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum (good analysis here) and the hubbub over the Obama vs. Dobson smack-down.   

So, all of that to say that with all of this coverage you would have thought that someone would have described the religious/political landscape with something that resonates with me as "accurately" portraying what things actually look like on the ground, but I've been pretty disappointed so far - not in the "trends," but in the coverage.  However, I think I finally found someone who gets it right.  J. Daryl Charles has a piece up at First Things entitled, "The Myth of the Evangelical Crackup."  The title and the bulk of the article is a pointed critique of David Kirkpatrick's long piece in the NYT Magazine back in October entitled, "The Evangelical Crackup" and by extension much of what has been written since.  Much of what has been written by the mainstream media since Kirkpatrick's piece was published has simply restated what he said:  the evangelical voting block that propelled Bush to wins in 2000 and 2004 is fractured, there are new trends and leaders emerging that refuse to be characterized by a single party or issue, Republicans can't count on the evangelical base anymore, etc., etc., etc. - Kirkpatrick was ahead of the curve in making these claims.  However, even when I read the piece last year something didn't feel right about it, Charle's gives voice to some of my unease not just about Kirkpatrick's piece but about the plethora of others that have followed it:
Conspicuously absent from Kirkpatrick’s reporting, a genre that rests on the perpetuation of false or exaggerated stereotypes, are several inconvenient facts. First, it ignores the remarkable—and seldom reported—diversity among evangelicals on matters social and political. Those of us who teach at the university level cannot help but be impressed by the current generation of young evangelicals, who possess a remarkably sensitized social conscience that is far more diversified and progressive than evangelicals of a previous generation. This development, it needs reiteration, has been measurable since the 1980s and is both heartening and to be encouraged. To describe this as a “recent” phenomenon or a “desertion” of traditional priorities or a major leftward political shift, as Kirkpatrick does, is pure fiction. Kirkpatrick need only consult a recent Pew study that reports “a small increase in the number of Democrats” that is coupled with an increase in the number of “independents and politically unaffiliated Americans.”
. . . . . . 
In the end, important changes surely have been afoot throughout wider evangelicalism, but neither are the most significant of these developments “recent” nor do they spell a collapse of traditional evangelical commitments in the social-political arena that equate to an exodus to the Democratic party, Kirkpatrick’s own wishes notwithstanding. There is—and will always be—the potential for uncritically adopting political allegiances that obscure the church’s role in society. But just for once—only once—I would love to hear an activist, or a New York Times correspondent, chasten the religious left and warn against the idolatry of hitching our horse to the Democratic party. Indeed, the last time I checked, the new wave of political messianism had the unmistakable smell of Chicago-style politics.
If you're interested in how things might actually play out in November give the piece a read.

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