The Great Incremental Evangelical Crackup?

hype 02The evangelicals -- why, they're cracking up! They're so over the Republican Party! They're sick of hearing about abortion and gay marriage! They've matured! They're concerned about global warming, Darfur, and poverty! They're warming up to Hillary and Obama! Truly, a new day has dawned! Stephanie Simon and Mark Z. Barabak of the Los Angeles Times are smart, discerning, and innovative reporters. So it says something that they have endorsed the Great Evangelical Crackup Thesis.

A fundamental shift is transforming the religious right, long a force in presidential politics, as aging evangelical leaders split on the 2008 race and a new generation of pastors turns away from politics altogether.

The result, in the short term, could be a boost for the centrist candidacy of former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose messy personal life and support for gay rights and legal abortion have not produced the unified opposition from Christian conservatives that many anticipated.

Over the longer term, the distancing of religious leaders from politics could prove even more consequential, denying the GOP one of the essential building blocks it has used to capture the White House in five of the last seven presidential races.

I think their story says something different from what they intended: The Great Evangelical Crackup Thesis is overstated and overhyped. By relying more on their rolodexes than the latest voting returns, they showed that their thesis isn't, well, all that it's cracked up to be.

Simon and Barabak quote from evangelical leaders, scholars, and reporters disillusioned with the Bush administration and the GOP. And to be sure, it's noteworthy that John C. Green, the leading scholar of evangelical political behavior, believes that young evangelicals are growing weary of the Christian right. Yet it's one thing for evangelicals to express disillusionment with Bush or the GOP. It's another for them to proclaim allegiance to the Democratic Party or to say they are staying home in November.

Take the 2004 election. At the time, Christianity Today surveyed 40 influential evangelicals about their views of President Bush, and senior news writer Tony Carnes summarized their views this way: "Many of them spoke warmly about the President but also expressed clear disappointment with the administration, specifically his handling of foreign affairs, his inability to push the faith-based agenda through Congress, and the way he expresses his faith in public." Well, in November their clear disappointment turned out to be rather opaque.

Perhaps anticipating this rebuttal, Simon and Barabak write that signs of the Great Evangelical Crackup occurred after the 2004 election: "In the three years since, many Christian conservatives have expressed a growing unease about the entanglement of politics and pulpit." Well, certainly many have done so, but evangelicals continued to vote overwhelmingly for Republicans in 2006. As The Washington Post noted,

In House races in 2004, 74 percent of white evangelicals voted for Republicans and 25 percent for Democrats, a 49-point spread, according to exit polls. This year, Republicans received 70 percent of the white evangelical vote and Democrats got 28 percent, a 42-point spread.

To be fair, Simon and Barabak acknowledge that Democrats don't "expect to swing the entire bloc of conservative religious voters their way next November," and quote from an author who says that even a swing of 2 percentage points "would make a huge difference." Well, this passage suggests that the "fundamental restructuring" of the evangelical vote is incremental, not fundamental.

Maybe the Democrats will nab an extra few percentage points of the evangelical vote in November. But can its presidential nominee replicate what congressional Democrats did?

Possibly, but the presidential and congressional wings of the Democratic Party are different birds. As a certain book Mollie referred to yesterday argues, secular liberals and religious liberals are much stronger in the presidential wing of the party. While the congressional wing urged pro-life Robert Casey Sr. to run for the Senate, the presidential wing denied his father a chance to address the delegates in 1992 because of his pro-life views, as a top DNC official admitted to me.

So isn't the Great Evangelical Crackup incremental, if at all, rather than fundamental? That strikes me as the real question we reporters should ask.

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