Christian Right's Influence Shaken by U.S. Election

Inter Press Service/November 8, 2012

Washington - For decades, right-leaning white Christian evangelicals, currently at least 25 percent of the U.S. electorate, have been a significant and influential voting demographic.

During Tuesday's highly anticipated presidential election, however, the evangelical movement suffered a huge loss of candidates and social reform propositions.

Eight years ago, the Christian right's agenda and support helped sweep George W. Bush into a second term as president, and set in motion a series of state-level moves to ban same-sex marriage. But Tuesday, the electorate seems to have largely rejected this agenda.

Today, conservative evangelicals are forced to ask themselves whether their days of political influence are over.

"I don't think the Christian right has declined in politics," Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition, a conservative political organisation, told IPS. "Evangelicals turned out in record numbers and voted for Mitt Romney, but it just wasn't enough."

Indeed, Christian evangelicals did come out in force, and three-quarters of them gave Republican challenger Mitt Romney their vote. But their strengths proved insufficient.

Not only did Democrats maintain control of the White House and the U.S. Senate, but both Maryland and Maine voted in a popular election to allow same-sex marriage in their states. This was the first time in history a state had voted to allow same-sex marriage by a popular majority.

Tuesday night, as the polls were closing, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, posted on Twitter, "If the marriage votes in (four states) go as now trending, we are witnessing a fundamental moral realignment of the country."

Wednesday morning, Mohler expressed the concerns felt by many evangelicals. "We are rightly and deeply concerned," he wrote. "We must pray that God will change President Obama's heart on a host of issues, ranging from the sanctity of unborn life to the integrity of marriage."

Not all evangelicals, however, are in such despair over the election results.

"I think that the positions taken by young evangelicals on the issues of same-sex marriage and immigration are beginning to vary greatly from what their faith traditionally has held," Kevin Wright, a pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church here in Washington, told IPS.

"It's not that these young people have any less use for the Bible, but rather that they are adopting a fuller faith that embraces a personal relationship with Jesus as well as a corporate responsibility towards social justice," he said.

Some pundits had predicted that Romney's Mormon faith would hurt his chances with evangelical voters, but he received more evangelical votes than John McCain did in 2008. Comb agrees that Romney's faith is not what lost him the election.

"I don't think evangelicals voted for his religion, they voted for him. Romney had all of the credentials to lead our country," she said.

Still, while religion may not have been directly responsible for Romney's loss, the values he articulated may have, particularly among younger evangelicals.

"I don't think the religious title mattered as much as the values articulated," Tim King, director of communications for Sojourners, a national Christian organisation that focuses on social justice issues, told IPS. "Romney failed to articulate basic economic values – that we are a country that takes care of one another."

Sojourners has taken a keen interest in the young evangelical vote in 2012. A survey it completed a month ago found that this demographic finds itself torn between the two political parties.

"I think young evangelicals are going to find themselves encouraged in some areas and disappointed in others," King said. "Our survey found young evangelicals polling with Democrats on issues of immigration, same-sex marriage and domestic policies. Yet, they polled with Republicans on issues of foreign policy and abortion."

This disconnect between young evangelicals and the evangelical leadership could be a contributing factor to the religious right's decline in power.

"I do see the decline of the Christian right's influence on America, and much of this has to do with dramatic changes in age dynamics," Wright said.

Young evangelicals are connecting less and less with their religion's leadership. Strong and often controversial positions on social issues such as abortion is one reason young evangelicals have begun to move away from the evangelical conservatives.

"Young people are leaving Christianity because of the types of things they are hearing from the mouths of the Christian right leaders and are no longer affiliating with a Christianity that maintains strict conservative politics," King said.

For instance, conservative evangelicals took a big chance when they continued to support Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, both favourites of the religious right, after both made controversial comments about rape and abortion. The Republican Party asked each to withdraw from their races, but evangelical Christians maintained support for each candidate.

On Tuesday, both lost.

"We should never leave our core values, but we need to expand them and we need to talk more about economic issues and issues that affect the family on everyday values," Combs cautioned.

"We have to begin reaching out to other demographics and engaging them in issues that affect their day to day life."

The Republican Party and the Christian right alike need to expand their issues and reach out to non-traditional conservative demographics if they hope to continue political influence.

"They (the Christian right) are going to try and blame others for these election results, but the fact is the world is changing and they need to change with it," King said.

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