October, 29th 2007

More on evangelicals throwing in the towel with the GOP

– Liz Mair

So, evangelicals are getting ticked off with the GOP. Anyone who has been paying attention knows this is to some degree true. The question is, why? The NY Times magazine offers one suggestion:

Today the president’s support among evangelicals, still among his most loyal constituents, has crumbled. Once close to 90 percent, the president’s approval rating among white evangelicals has fallen to a recent low below 45 percent, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. White evangelicals under 30 the future of the church were once Bush’s biggest fans; now they are less supportive than their elders. And the dissatisfaction extends beyond Bush. For the first time in many years, white evangelical identification with the Republican Party has dipped below 50 percent, with the sharpest falloff again among the young, according to John C. Green, a senior fellow at Pew and an expert on religion and politics. (The defectors by and large say they’ve become independents, not Democrats, according to the polls.)

Some claim the falloff in support for Bush reflects the unrealistic expectations pumped up by conservative Christian leaders. But no one denies the war is a factor. Christianity Today, the evangelical journal, has even posed the question of whether evangelicals should “repent” for their swift support of invading Iraq.

“Even in evangelical circles, we are tired of the war, tired of the body bags,” the Rev. David Welsh, who took over late last year as senior pastor of Wichita’s large Central Christian Church, told me. “I think it is to the point where they are saying: O.K., we have done as much good as we can. Now let’s just get out of there.’ ”

Welsh, who favors pressed khaki pants and buttoned-up polo shirts, is a staunch conservative, a committed Republican and, personally, a politics junkie. But he told me he was wary of talking too much about politics or public affairs around the church because his congregation was so divided over the war in Iraq.

Welsh said he considered himself among those who still support the president. “I think he is a good man,” Welsh said, slowly. “He has a heart, a spiritual heart.”

But like most of the people I met at Wichita’s evangelical churches, his support for Bush sounded more than a little agonized closer to sympathy than admiration. “Bush may not have the best people around him,” he added, delicately. “He may not have made the best decisions. He is in a quagmire right now and maybe doesn’t know how to get out. Because to pull out now would say, I was wrong from the very beginning.’ ”

Some were less ambivalent. “We know we want to get rid of Bush,” Linda J. Hogle, a product demonstrator at Sam’s Club, told me when I asked her about the 2008 election at her evangelical church’s Fourth of July picnic.

“I am glad he can’t run again,” agreed her friend, Floyd Willson. Hogle and Willson both voted for President Bush in 2004. Both are furious at the war and are looking to vote for a Democrat next year. “Upwards of a thousand boys that have been needlessly killed, it is all just politics,” Willson said.

So, it's the war, is it? Personally, I'm not convinced. Sure, everyone in America is gradually getting ticked off about our engagement in Iraq, which isn't turning up the kind of swift successes we would like, and has resulted in lots and lots of deaths, American and Iraqi.

Nonetheless, I would posit something different (and, indeed, I have). Evangelicals are very focused on saving the environment and curbing poverty, the latter being a traditional concern of the Democratic party and the former being something with which they have become associated, mainly by virtue of the GOP saying absolutely nothing on the subject for a good while now. I personally think that this has as much, perhaps more, to do with evangelicals abandoning the GOP and taking a second look at Democrats than does the war, but what do I know? After all, I'm not an evangelical (though I doubt the good people at Kos, who actually have some decent coverage on this story and related points, are either), and frankly, I'm not someone who thinks evangelicals are the be-all and end-all in politics, and therefore one who pays them less attention than many commentators. Nonetheless, I think I have a point here, and it's one I've been making for some time. Break off the issues of abortion, gay marriage, pornography, and those usual suspects, and when you look at the mindframe of many in the "religious right," you don't find an opposition to government, you find an embracing of it, in order to serve "moral" ends. Yes, traditionally, pundits have seen those as the good, old social issues, but they're more encompassing than that, too, and when you move beyond them, you find that a lot of evangelicals look more in tune with Democrats and their overriding philosophy ("government intervention for the greater good") than they do the basic libertarian philosophy at the root of conservatism, at least as it was developed by Goldwater ("leave me alone"). The point of all of this being that I think we can expect to see a lot more of evangelicals walking away from the GOP, and heading to the Democratic Party because underneath it all, many of them don't have a problem with higher taxes, more anti-poverty initiatives, instituting Kyoto to save the Garden of Eden, or an expanded federal role in health care or education (as long as we're not funding abortion, contraception, sex ed, or Darwinism-teaching, mind you)-- and I'm not so sure that's a bad thing, in the end.

Some will disagree. In particular, I have a friend who shall remain nameless, who is a conservative pundit, and who feels that one big reason the GOP needs to "go green" is to pull in the evangelicals once again-- something he worries about a great deal. OK, sure, this would be handy, electorally, but I often get the impression that this friend would accept buying into the logic of Kyoto in order to achieve the political end of keeping hold of such "religious 'right'" votes-- and that's something I think is barking (mainly because Kyoto just doesn't work, but also because, yes, I don't care about evangelical votes enough to pander on the environment issue). Certainly, I am in the minority of Republican/conservative pundits who don't believe that evangelicals warrant the amount of time and policy-based favor-currying which they have received thus far.

Call me crazy, but I just see fault lines emerging, which I'm not sure are worth throwing away a baseline political identity over. Frankly, I'd rather get the votes of those who have a personal aversion to high taxes and high spending, than try to mold the GOP into some new contortionist body that fuses non-government-interventionist thinking in a few areas with intervention-happy thinking in quite a few others, based mainly on polling data and efforts to "make nice" with people who represent a sizeable voting bloc, but many of whom have seemed to move away from the thinking that once made them a legitimate part of the GOP.

I'd just rather not see the party that was changed forever by the introduction of Goldwater thinking, become a hybrid that tries (and I would predict wholly unsuccessfully) to fuse Goldwaterian libertarianism with Huckabeean government-friendliness.


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