By Gabe Lyons and Jonathan Merritt
Just days away from the mid-term elections, the GOP is inching closer to what some conservatives are saying may be the second “Republican revolution.” Gallup’s generic ballot is predicting significant gains for Republicans in both the House and the Senate. The typically cautious Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has even predicted that the GOP will win the House and perhaps the Senate while gaining up to eight new governorships.
Some Democrats disagree with such predictions, and they say that this election won’t come close to the 1994 mid-terms when no Republican incumbent lost and America witnessed a 54-seat swing. But there seems to be an even more significant difference between the first so-called “revolution” and the current conservative campaign: this time around, the Christian right is noticeably absent.
(The late Rev. Jerry Falwell speaks during the Christion Coalition of America Road to Victory 2000 conference in Washington)
In the weeks leading up to the last “Republican revolution” in 1994, Christian right political advocates were among the most notable and vocal voices. Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition was at its political peak and distributed 40 million copies of the “Family Values Voters Guides” in more than 100,000 churches nationwide. As a result, one national poll showed 27 percent of all voters that year self-identified themselves as born-again Christians, compared with 18 percent in 1988.
But by 2008, the Christian tide had turned. With the newly formed “Religious left” at the forefront of Obama’s campaign, many Christians crossed party lines for the first time. For example, double the number of young evangelicals voted for Obama than for Kerry in 2004.
Though there have been attempts to revive the movement–most noticeably, the “Values Voter Summit” and a few cameos by Sarah Palin–the impact on the ground has been minimal at best. Notable Christian engagement of late includes a lone Florida pastor threatening to burn a Koran and a scattered few ministers who have rallied behind Glenn Beck and the Tea Party. Hardly the mass movement of Christians demanding social change through Republican policies witnessed 16 years ago.
Why has this happened?
In large part, it’s because the Christian right has failed to enlist sufficient numbers of young recruits in their movement. As noted in the book UnChristian, most young Americans have been turned off by the religious right’s politics, as well as the judgmentalism and hypocrisy that now marks American Christianity. While faith still informs the way young believers cast votes, it doesn’t express itself in such vicious partisanship as years past. In recent polls, more young Christians self-identify as “centrist” than either “conservative” or “liberal.”
Additionally, de-enlisted older Christians increasingly share the sentiments of these un-enlisted young Christians. A cross-generational weariness with the culture wars has set in among all Christians, which partially accounts for their absence in current battles. According to a recent LifeWay Research poll, only 28% of evangelicals believe they will see a significant contribution from current Christian leadership in resolving pressing social concerns.
Without new faces or an invigorated contingency, the Christian right has found itself in the middle of a leadership vacuum. Many stalwart Christian conservatives like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy passed away while others, including James Dobson and Pat Robertson, have been able to exert far less influence. According to Politico, “Without a charismatic figure carrying the banner, the religious right has been eclipsed by the fiscally focused tea party.”
To be fair, an October 2010 study by the Public Religion Research Institute shows nearly half of Tea Partiers consider themselves a part of the religious right or conservative Christian movement. But these believers aren’t following Christian leadership or fighting for a distinctly Christian agenda.
Rather than cheering for Christian pastors on political talk shows, conservatives are now tuning into teary-eyed lectures from Mormon pundit, Glenn Beck. In fact, Beck delivered the commencement address this year at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Forthcoming books by conservatives including No Apology: The Case for American Greatness by Mitt Romney and To Save America by Newt Gingrich are rooted more in historical narrative than religious narrative. Not only has the pilotage turned over, but the storyline from the last GOP resurgence has also been completely replaced.
This new narrative has also stoked emotions on a different set of issues than Christians have championed in the past. Debates over hot buttons such as abortion and illegal drugs that were critical in the 1994 elections have given way to emotional disputes about federal spending, a still-struggling economy, the role of government, and the very essence of what it means to be “American.”
They say every revolution needs strong leaders, powerful ideas, and a mobilized constituency. The Christian political movement of late has failed to produce all three. While a few religious political leaders will doubtlessly try to cobble together their old coalitions, it seems we’ve entered into a new era in the American public square. If indeed a “revolution” will take place this November, we can be certain that Christians aren’t responsible for it.
Gabe Lyons is author of The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (Doubleday, 2010) and co-author of the bestselling Unchristian (Baker, 2007). He is founder of Q, a learning community for Christians (Qideas.org).
Jonathan Merritt is author of Green Like God (Faithwords, 2010) who publishes widely in such outlets as USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, CNN.com and BeliefNet.com.