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Week of 1.25.08

Evangelicals in Flux
An Interview with John Green

Prof. John Green
Prof. John Green
Photo: Kyle Kutuchief
NOW interviewed John Green, senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and professor of political science at the University of Akron, about the "new generation" of evangelicals.

NOW: Is there a risk of evangelicals becoming so politically involved?

GREEN: There are many evangelicals that believed, back in the days of the Moral Majority, even today, that there is a real risk of having their religious faith and their views of God and Jesus and so forth being too closely identified with a particular political party or with a particular political program. This is not unique to evangelicals. There are many religious groups that fear that when they get involved in politics that, in some sense, their religious values might be diminished, that they might be compromised by this political activity.

The other side of that, of course, is that many of the issues that are active in politics, that are important to evangelicals, require political action. So, there's always something of a trade off. Does one compromise one's faith by being active in politics, or does one abandon one's faith by not being involved in politics? Today what we see is evangelicals debating that trade off.

NOW: Why is that debate happening now?

GREEN: There are a number of different reasons why there this debate over political style and why a political agenda among the evangelicals has developed now as opposed to four years ago or eight years ago. Part of it is generation change. The generation of leaders that created the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition are passing from the scene.

Perhaps the best example is the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who passed away just last year. But others who are still alive are becoming less and less active, retiring from the political fray, and being replaced by a younger generation of evangelical leaders who have a much broader agenda, who are much more diverse than that original generation of political activists. If one looks at the very youngest evangelicals—18 to 24 years old—they have the broadest agenda and are concerned with the most kinds of issues, and they're the most desirous of changing the style of evangelical political activity.

In addition to generational change there's also been a political maturation of evangelicals. They've now been involved in politics for a couple of decades and they're beginning to understand there's a lot more to politics than just a particular set of issues and that their religious values might be relevant to a whole range of questions—the environment, social justice and international relations.

And finally, of course, there's the flux of the 2008 election. We're not going to have an incumbent running for office or a surrogate this time. There are wide open races in both the Democratic and Republican Party, and a lot of very controversial issues, from the economy to the war in Iraq, that are on the table.

The evangelical community is debating what their appropriate role should be in politics.
And there's just the circumstance, with a lot of Americans thinking very seriously about the direction of the country, and evangelicals are part of that rethinking. So, we put all these things together. It's a unique moment when the evangelical community is debating what their appropriate role should be in politics.

NOW: Let's talk about this new generation of pastors. Who are these guys? And why are they embracing more of these ideas? It seems like issues they should have been embracing all along.

GREEN: The new generation of evangelical leaders is best symbolized by two well known pastors. One is Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church in California, who was the author of The Purpose Driven Life, a best selling book about spiritual matters. And the other is Joel Hunter, who is a pastor of a church in Florida, who has also written books about religion and politics.

And both of them have a very different style. To them the word of God applies to all aspects of life and not just to the conservative social issues, where, in fact, they are quite conservative. But they believe that the church ought to be speaking out on things like AIDS in Africa and ought to be speaking out on economic questions and ought to be urging Christians to be good stewards of the environment. There's a stylistic difference. These are individuals who grew up in a world where evangelicals were active in politics. They didn't have to be brought to that idea, but their idea of being a good citizen and being active in politics is broader, and it's less confrontational and more cooperative.

These are gentlemen that would like to see evangelicals cooperating not just with each other, but with other religious communities and even with people who don't necessarily share their faith in order to achieve certain goals through the political process. So this generation has a different style and a different set of priorities and a much broader agenda than the leaders that preceded them.

NOW: Why are they reaching across the divide? Is it something that they noticed from the old guard that they didn't like or something that they learned about the old guard that didn't work? Why is it that they're doing that?

GREEN: The younger generation of evangelical leaders is very interested in broader coalitions. They're interested in working with people that they might not agree with on religion or on theology, and part of that is because they recognize the limitations of the previous generation of Christian right leaders.

They didn't always achieve the goals that they'd set out to achieve, and at the same time, made other people very angry with them and unwilling to cooperate even when there was agreement on particular policies, so some of this is a learning process.

But part of it, also, is a sense that the religious values of evangelicals have broader application, and that if they're going to be good citizens in the world, they need to apply their values to all the issues that come along, and not just to one selective set of issues, as important as those issues might be.

NOW: Can you be a liberal and an evangelical?

GREEN: You know [this question] is really interesting. I've done surveys for many years of pastors and evangelical activists and the people in the pews—-surveys of the public. And one of the questions we often ask is, "Is it possible to be an evangelical and a liberal?"

And the reason we ask that is because that is the subject of some contention and debate within the evangelical community. And we find that there really are two opinions on that matter. Some evangelicals, particularly the more conservative ones, really doubt that one could be a true believer and a political liberal.

But there are others, and there always have been others, that don't see that that's necessarily a contradiction and that one could find in the religious teachings of the evangelical community plenty of things that might lead one to adopt liberal positions in politics. It's my sense that in the last few years, that second group, people who don't see a necessary contradiction between evangelical beliefs and political liberalism, has become somewhat larger. And more than that, it's become much more vocal.

NOW: Do you see the evangelical community moving away from a particular party and being more concerned about particular issues?

GREEN: When one looks at evangelical political activity, it has always been much more issue-focused than it has been party-focused. But in the last several elections, the pursuit of those particular issues, especially issues like abortion and same sex marriage, have led many evangelicals into the Republican Party and to strongly support the Republican Party.

Even though many of the parts of the Republican platform don't necessarily fit with evangelical teachings all that well, there's been a focus on those particular issues. And what we see today is a reassessment of that position. It doesn't necessarily mean that all evangelicals will run out and vote Democratic in the next election. Many of them will probably, through this reassessment, decide to stay with a Republican candidate.

But this is an active debate. And many evangelicals are taking a hard look at the Democrats and the Democratic candidates. They don't want to be beholden to a particular party, precisely because they care so much about issues.

NOW: What role does the evangelical community have in an election season like this? What kind of power or influence do they actually have?

This generation has a much broader agenda than the leaders that preceded them.
GREEN: In recent times, evangelicals have become a very strong Republican constituency. The national exit polls in the 2004 election showed that white, born-again Protestants—a good proxy for evangelicals, voted 78 percent for George W. Bush. That's a very large majority. But, of course, that also means that 22 percent of them voted for John Kerry. It's not an unsubstantial number of votes. Republicans know this. And so they worry a great deal about trying to keep the evangelical community happy and supporting them.

But the Democrats realize this too. And they would like to do everything in their power to peel away some of those votes.

NOW: It seems like in previous elections they had one candidate to rally around. What's happening now with this field of candidates? I mean, not all evangelicals are going for Huckabee. What's going on now?

GREEN: Well, one of the interesting things about the 2008 presidential election is there's been no Republican presidential candidate that's captured the enthusiasm of most evangelicals. Governor Huckabee has probably done the best of all of them, but he certainly doesn't have a majority, and we have evangelical leaders and followers divided up among the different Republican candidates. This is so different from 2004 when evangelicals had rallied around George W. Bush. But if you go back into the 1990s—to 1996, 1992—we can see examples of elections, like 2008, where there was no clear choice for the evangelical community.

Evangelicals discovered that when they divide their votes up among candidates, they don't have quite as much influence in the primary process. So, there has been some pressure on evangelicals, even now in 2008, to rally behind a particular candidate. They just haven't found the candidate that they want to rally behind.

NOW: One of the other pastors we spoke to was saying that when he was growing up before becoming a minister, he was told that he had to look like everyone else. You know, you had to wear your hair a certain way, you had to have your suit a certain way, you could only talk about certain issues and you couldn't make jokes in your sermon. Are you aware of this phenomenon and how it's changing now?

GREEN: Well, today, another group of evangelicals are finding ways to engage popular culture. They use humor in their sermons. They dress informally. They're very effective on the Internet because they want to find a way to take their religious message to a new group of people. This imperative to evangelize is very strong among evangelicals, and leads them to change the way that they engage with their culture.

But this, of course, also produces conflict because what worked 100 years ago or 50 years ago may not work today. And the clash between the adaptation to a previous culture and the adaptation to today's culture often creates conflict among evangelicals.

And they spend a great deal of time, sometimes, criticizing each other over whether they've gone too far in adapting to the present culture, whatever that might be, in order to spread their message. But, if history is any guide, those types of adaptations will continually occur because that's essential for evangelicals to do what they really care about, which is to spread their view of the gospel to everyone in the world.

NOW: Is there a difference between fundamentalism and being an evangelical?

Many evangelicals are taking a hard look at the Democrats and the Democratic candidates.
GREEN: The terms fundamentalist and evangelical are often used interchangeably, but they're often held as being opposites of one another. One way that one can think about this is that all fundamentalist Protestants are evangelicals. But not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are the heirs of a political and religious movement that developed in the early 20th century in reaction to the modern world, and many of the things that those people saw as bad about the world. Fundamentalism has had an enormous impact on the United States but also all around world, this idea of getting back to the true faith as opposed to the modern world which perverts and abandons the faith.

But not all people in the religious communities that were influenced by the fundamentalist movement adopted all of the particular beliefs. And most of them did not adopt the style of fundamentalists. It's a very strident style because fundamentalists thought they were defending the true faith against its enemies.

So what we see today is a broad community of conservative Protestants, a small proportion of which adhered to fundamentalist beliefs and ideas. And then a much larger group, that are happy to call themselves evangelicals, but who agree with some of the basic religious values, but with not all of the particular doctrines, and don't adopt the particular style of fundamentalists.

NOW: Is the evangelical community cracking up? Is it dividing or is it just changing?

GREEN: Some people have said that there's a big crack-up going on in the evangelical community, and I don't think that's a very accurate statement. I think what we're seeing is the evangelical community is in flux, and there are changes taking place and that the religious aspects of the evangelical community are changing, and so are their relevance to politics. But this community is still going to be around in the next several years; it's still going to be important in both religious and political terms. But its public face may be different than it has been in the last few years.

NOW: What are some of the issues about the Republican Party that have made them [younger evangelicals] disillusioned?

GREEN: You know, it's interesting when one looks at these younger voters and their move away from the Republican Party because it doesn't seem to be associated with social issues. Younger evangelicals are just as pro-life as their parents and their grandparents. They're also very opposed to same sex marriage. But there are other issues where they have some real problems with the Republican Party. A lot of it is just simply the management of the government and course; a lot of Americans have become discouraged with the management of the government under President Bush and his administration. There are, however, new issues, like the environment, where there does seem to be some criticism that can be directed at the Republican Party.

Some younger evangelicals supported President Bush back in the previous elections because they liked that slogan, "Compassionate Conservatism." To them, that made a lot of sense. And they've been very disappointed because as far as they can tell, the Bush administration has not been able to deliver on though promises. So there are a number of different issues that have let younger evangelicals, in particular, to be disillusioned with the Republican Party.

NOW: Why should people who are not evangelical Christians care about what's going on in this community?

GREEN: Evangelical Christians are a very large religious community. They make up approximately a quarter of the adult population which would make them about the same size as Roman Catholics, so, a large religious community. And, what happens in that religious community is likely to have an impact on elections. But not only that, these large groups really do matter, and the divisions and agreements within them can be quite important for how the United States will develop over the next decades.