"Religious Right" In transition

The Religious Right is learning morality and politics can be separated.

Today: Religious voters

CAL: In what could be the last gasp of what secularists in the 1980s labeled the "religious right," hundreds of evangelical Christians gathered last weekend in an Iowa church to hear from nine declared or possible Republican presidential candidates.

BOB: Why do you say last gasp?

CAL: Because, as you know, the culture is changing. It is more diverse than the mostly white, mostly older crowd at that church; it is more tolerant of behavior that was once regarded as not only sinful but also disqualifying from high office — from cohabitation, to same-sex marriage, adultery, even low behavior in high places.

BOB: You're right. I think another factor is that many Americans have grown tired of religious leaders who condemn people, especially President Obama. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. As a believer, myself, I have been shocked at some of the things these Christians have said about the president, who they are commanded in Scripture to pray for, whether or not they voted for him. This has turned off especially younger voters.

CAL: You're right. One of the myths evangelicals have promoted is that too many of them don't vote. If more would turn out on Election Day, goes this thinking, more Republicans would be elected and that somehow would repair the country's damaged moral and spiritual underpinnings. As the National Journal reported, 79% of white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, but it wasn't enough to defeat Obama: "While white evangelicals comprised a quarter of the electorate, other religious groups that lean Democratic have grown substantially."

BOB: Agreed. That article also notes these include Hispanic-American Catholics, African-American Protestants and Jewish Americans. These voted in overwhelming numbers for Obama. As important, says the National Journal, people who claim no religious affiliation are the fastest growing group, now making up one-fifth of the population and a third of adults younger than 30. Seven out of 10 of these "nones" also voted for Obama.

CAL: A New York Times article on the Iowa gathering quoted Kedron Bardwell, a political scientist at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa: "The problem for Christian conservative candidates is they're all running in the same lane." I would argue they are in the wrong lane.

BOB: Meaning?

CAL: The problems these conservative evangelicals address are moral and spiritual, not political. Politicians, who have a difficult enough time imposing a moral code on themselves, are not the ones these people should ask to impose that code on the country. Their leader was not political. In fact, Jesus said, "My Kingdom is not of this world."

BOB: Amen to that, but you don't discount the contributions of religious liberals in promoting civil rights legislation and opposition to the Vietnam War, do you?

CAL: Certainly not. Civil rights should have united all people of faith. Liberals were correct in their opposition to the Vietnam War, escalated by liberal Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. Conservatives would argue it was not immoral to oppose the spread of communism, though that turned out not to be the primary issue in Vietnam.

BOB: You were once associated with the religious right. What is the cause for its decline?

CAL: Part of it is what I mentioned — that moral and spiritual issues can only be addressed effectively by the church, not the state. Today, what is known as the institutional church is in decline. That is not necessarily bad.

BOB: What do you mean?

CAL: It gives individual evangelicals the opportunity to stop looking to others to do work that is uniquely theirs — feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, care for widows and orphans — as a demonstration of God's love and desire to change their lives. Peter Berger of Boston University told the National Journal: "Modernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily pluralizing. Modernity is characterized by an increasing plurality, within the same society, of different beliefs, values and worldviews." Berger is correct.

BOB: He gets my vote.

CAL: This transition from an institutional church to individual responsibility can be something good for America if evangelicals return to their "first love" and begin sharing their faith in deed first and then word. Writer C.S. Lewis said this about politics: "A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind — if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else — then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease."

BOB: Lewis was a smart Christian, and many people still read his works. They might have a greater impact if they focused more on changing lives and less on changing who is in the White House.