Evangelicals' political clout: real or imagined?
Every election cycle the political power of evangelicals and the Christian Right seems to come under fresh scrutiny. But what is the actual impact of the group's excellent mobilization efforts. Steven Brint, professor of sociology and associate dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, provides some insight. He is co-editor with Jean Reith Schroedel of the two-volume series, "Evangelicals and Democracy in America," published in August by Russell Sage Foundation Press.
GUEST BLOGGER: Steven Brint
Evangelical Protestant denominations accounted for 85 percent of all U.S. churches in 1860, according to the historian Mark Noll. Today, evangelicals represent about 25 percent of the U.S. adult population, a distinct minority in a landscape populated not only by Catholics (who rival them in numbers), mainline Protestants, and Jews -- but also increasing numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others.
Even so, it often seems like evangelicals have attained unprecedented strength, as evidenced by their raucous support for Sarah Palin on the 2008 campaign trail and their sometimes rowdy turnout in town hall meetings to protest health care reform as a prelude to socialism and death panels. Since the West Virginia textbook protests of the 1960s, white evangelicals have shown that they will demonstrate loudly against social policies they reject.
Why has the politically diverse mass of white evangelicals (30 percent still think of themselves as Democrats) provided so many recruits for the Christian Right?
Social factors help to explain it. Evangelicals experience feelings of moral elevation due, in part, to the strictness of the theological doctrines they profess.
Moreover, they are nominally members of the dominant racial and religious groups in American society, yet they perceive themselves as ignored or marginalized by the culture. The reservoir of frustration created by these circumstances runs deep and wide.
Evangelicals find the nation continuously beset by social problems, many stemming from changes in sexual freedoms, gender and family relations, and the raising of children. They identify the secularization of society as the root cause of these problems.
As constructed by the Christian Right, "secular elites" stand for hedonism, wastefulness, and the transformation of American society away from its religious roots. These secular elites -- with their undeniable influence in the media, arts, and universities -- have served as an effective "moral other" against which to rally.
The Republican Party has proven a skillful manager of evangelicals' discontents. It has kept the focus on moral-values issues that bring in some Democratic and independent support - abortion, gay rights, and end-of-life decisions - while keeping unpopular evangelical positions related to premarital sex, divorce, and pornography off the public agenda. It has perfected ways of signaling its support for religion without turning off less religious voters - by using occasional veiled references to scripture and by narrowly targeting more overtly religious messages to church audiences.
Republican National Committee funds have been supporting Christian Right organizations since Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition of the early 1990s. Since then, it has extended its organizational networks through appointments of evangelicals to Republican controlled offices and through regular policy discussions between top GOP officials and leaders of Christian Right organizations.
Today, the image of the Christian Right as a pressure group no longer applies; instead, the Christian Right and the GOP are co-evolving.
In spite of its impressive capacity to mobilize evangelicals, the Christian Right has made relatively few lasting impressions on post-sixties American society. Women's rights and gay rights have continued to gain ground, as have women and gay candidates for office. Intelligent design has failed to displace evolution at the center of science teaching, and, indeed, both the educational objectives and curriculum of Christian school looks quite a bit like those of public schools.
Evangelicals' protests against media content have fallen on deaf ears, and today Christian media represent one niche market among many others, sometimes producing crossover talent for the mainstream media. Although religious activists have scored some victories in the courts, their wins have led to less sweeping changes than activists have hoped for.
The lesson is that American society is, above all, an arena of secular legal authority, pluralistic competition for power, and a consumer marketplace. Religious conservatives have been shaped by these realities far more than they have been able to shape them. Their greatest successes have therefore depended on broadening their message, using secular legal opinions and scientific evidence to support their positions, and making common cause with non-religious actors. Where they have been successful, they have done it, ironically, by becoming more a part of the secular world.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: ccnl1 | November 9, 2009 4:27 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.