Christian bloc sees cracks

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- How would Jesus vote?

For many white, evangelical Christians, the answer has long been clear: Opposition to abortion and gay rights has unified religious conservatives behind Republican candidates.

But new developments, both in politics and in churches, are testing that relationship.

Dissatisfaction with the Republican presidential field, an expanding evangelical agenda and Democratic outreach are threatening the cohesion of a bloc widely credited with making George W. Bush president.

"There is a peeling away from close identification with the Republican Party among many, many evangelicals," said the Rev. Rich Nathan, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church of Columbus, Ohio, a political moderate. "We're beginning to move back to historic patterns, and less the pattern of the last 25 years."

Meanwhile, as the generation headed by the late Jerry Falwell, 700 Club host Pat Robertson and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson prepares to leave the stage, younger evangelical leaders are looking to broaden the political agenda.

The Rev. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Church, has teamed with Sen. Barack Obama and rock star Bono to address AIDS worldwide. The Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention is arguing for a Christian approach to immigration reform. The Rev. Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals wants action on climate change.

"God rest his soul, Jerry Falwell only had one-quarter, one-third of the picture," Cizik said. "He understood that some issues are moral. The sanctity of human life and the protection of the traditional family. But those are only two principles."

The opposition that Cizik's efforts have drawn underscores a generational divide in the American evangelical community. Dobson, Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer and others asked the National Association of Evangelicals in March to silence him. They said he was using global warming "to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children."

To many younger believers, though, taking on AIDS, poverty and "creation care" - environmentalism - might feel more pressing.

Jason Poling, the 34-year-old pastor of the New Hope Community Church in Pikesville, opposes abortion. To a generation that grew up after Roe v. Wade, he said, "the idea of fighting to end abortion might have been inspiring to some. But it seemed like something of a quixotic battle to others. Environmental issues tend to be much more on the radar."

James Skillen, president of the Center for Public Justice, an Annapolis-based organization that seeks to develop Christian leaders, says a similar divide is opening over homosexuality.

"There are many, many evangelicals - I mean, I hear them, particularly younger people - who would say, 'Look, I'm against homosexuality. I don't think that's proper sexuality. I certainly wouldn't approve of gay marriage. But you know, after all, there are other people who believe in it. Let's live and let live.' I think that that's the flow of the future," he said.

John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life sees "a great deal of foment."

"Given that up until recently, the Republicans held both houses of Congress as well as the White House, many [conservative evangelicals] had expected a bit more progress on their agenda," he said.

Moderates and progressives "have become restive on the other side - being perhaps disappointed because the Republican Party has not been as interested in other kinds of issues."

Enter the Democrats. Asked at a recent presidential debate to identify his "moral leader," former Sen. John Edwards said: "My Lord is important to me. I go to him in prayer every day."

Sen. Hillary Clinton's Web site describes her Methodist upbringing and a youth minister who taught her about "faith in action." Obama has written of his embrace of Christianity at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. All three have hired staff to reach out to the faithful.

The attempt to court white evangelicals amounts to an about-face for the Democrats, who in the past have largely ceded to Republicans a segment of the electorate that voted more than 3-to-1 for Bush in 2004.

"There is an opportunity here," said Mara Vanderslice, a born-again Christian who joined the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry in 2004. The political consultant speaks of focusing on issues such as poverty and the environment, while finding new ways to discuss areas of contention such as abortion.

"What you're seeing is that pro-choice candidates, if they're willing to talk about finding solutions to reduce the numbers of abortions ... that's where we can find common ground," she said.

Republican National Committee spokesman Dan Ronayne says that he sees reports of Democrats getting religion every election.

"They're going to have to pay [religious conservatives] more than lip service," he said. "I think they're going to have to look at their policies and why they're out of step with that community."

He cited Democratic condemnation of the recent Supreme Court decision upholding a ban on the procedure that opponents call "partial-birth abortion." Conservative Christians have seen it as a victory.

The Rev. Rick Scarborough, the Baptist minister who heads Vision America, speaks of "incredible disenchantment in the Christian right with the current state of things, both the way the war has been handled and the incredible growth of the federal government under what we were led to believe was a conservative president."

But he says he will be "eternally grateful" to Bush for his judicial appointments, and for recognizing "the true nature of radical Islam and the threat that Iran and the Islamic terrorists are to the entire world."

Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa, doubts that Democrats can win over large numbers of conservative Christians.

"Their big threat is not that they're going to vote for somebody else," he said. "Their big threat is that they're not going to show up."

Vanderslice agreed that Democrats face a challenge.

"The religious right and Republicans have invested millions of dollars over two decades to try to corner this market - to win these voters and make them think they're the only party for them," she said. "I think it will take time."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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