Here's a bold prediction: Evangelicals will present few if any obstacles for the Democrats in next year's presidential race, but may prove problematic for the Republican nominee.
I'm not suggesting that a majority of evangelicals will vote Democratic next year. What I am saying is the 2008 presidential race could be a turning point for evangelical politics in America.
The 2006 midterms confirmed that the Democrats' so-called problem among religious voters was really about white and Hispanic Catholics, not white evangelicals. (Democratic support among African-Americans, regardless of denomination, remains as strong as ever.) Though exit polls showed only a slight improvement for Democrats among white evangelicals, who remained loyal to the GOP, Democrats received a rise in support from Catholics and secular voters. The result: new Democratic majorities in Congress, among governors, and in state legislatures.
Religious politics today is less about "denomination than differences in attendance and beliefs," says political scientist John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life and author of The Faith Factor. An important distinction, as Mr. Green explained during a recent luncheon at the Brookings Institution, is between the 40 percent of Americans who say they attend church at least weekly and those who attend less frequently, if at all.
The pre-2006 conventional wisdom was that Democrats could not win without closing this participatory "God gap." But this gap actually widened in 2006, says Mr. Green, with Democratic gains among seculars and irregular-attendance Catholics trumping their small gains among the devout, including evangelicals.
If evangelical voters pose a diminishing threat to Democrats, they are becoming more nettlesome for Republicans, particularly as the evangelical agenda broadens.
"Evangelicals - especially the new generation of pastors and young people - are deserting the religious right in droves," wrote Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics, in a February commentary in Time. "The evangelical social agenda is now much broader and deeper, engaging issues like poverty and economic justice, global warming, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, genocide in Darfur and the ethics of the war in Iraq."
For example, somebody should alert the Republican presidential aspirants to the declaration issued this spring by a coalition of top evangelicals that renounces "torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees" and calls for the United States to embrace the Geneva Conventions. During last month's South Carolina debate, with the notable exception of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP candidates tried to out-macho each other on the treatment of detainees. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney - whose Mormon faith is dismissed by many evangelicals as nothing short of a cult - boasted that he'd like to "double Guantanamo," the U.S. prison camp in Cuba that some say should be closed.
Of course, evangelicals still hold firm on core issues. In that same debate, three of the 10 candidates said they didn't believe in the theory of evolution, another litmus issue for evangelicals. But none of the three - Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo - has a real shot of winning the nomination. The refusal to renounce evolution isn't helping Mr. McCain, who has enough problems with non-religious conservatives on issues such as illegal immigration and campaign finance.
And then there are former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's views on abortion and gay rights. Because of them, the Rev. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family and arguably the most powerful evangelical leader in the country, wrote last month in one of his weekly columns that he "cannot, and will not, vote" for Mr. Giuliani. "It is an irrevocable decision," he said.
Mr. Dobson is a founding member of the Arlington Group, a confederation of top evangelical leaders whose aim is to get "Republicans to pay attention by making them feel pain," reports Dan Gilgoff in his book, The Jesus Machine.
Democrats will have the pleasure of few evangelical votes in 2008, but that may not matter. If even a small share of evangelicals stay home because they deem Mr. Romney's Mormonism too cultish, Mr. Giuliani's abortion views disqualifying or Mr. McCain's position on evolution unacceptable, they will inflict sufficient pain on the GOP next November to make Democrats grin.
Thomas F. Schaller's column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.