The Changing Face of Christian Politics

Looking back, 2013 is likely to be remembered as the final collapse of the old, confrontational Religious Right in favor of a less partisan, more pragmatic approach.
A new generation of Christian leaders is trying to emulate Pope Francis's model of appealing to a wider audience without giving up the basic tenets of the faith. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

In the closing days of 2013, Representative Steve King summed up the year in religion and politics well. After a year in which Christian leaders and organizations mobilized to pressure Congress on immigration reform, King was ready to take off his gloves: "We might lose [the immigration] debate in this country because of the sympathy factor, and it's also added to by a lot of Christian groups who misread the scripture, and I'm happy to take on that debate with any one of those folks."

As a frequent speaker at "values voter" conferences, King must have felt odd positioning himself in direct opposition to Christians. Then again, 2013 was a year defined by Christian leaders seeking to realign themselves politically to meet the challenges of a new century and changing culture.

Christian political engagement is changing in this country as believers seek to untangle their faith from the worldliness of partisan politics and ideology. The melding of Christianity and partisan politics has been 40 years in the making, but the costs of that entanglement have only become clear to Christians over the last decade.

In response to changing cultural mores in the 1960s and '70s, religious leaders like the Reverend Jerry Falwell—who had previously spurned partisan political engagement—called Christians to "stand for what is right" through the acquisition of political power. "In a nation of primarily Christians," they reasoned, "why are we struggling to influence our nation's policy decisions?" Soon, Christians became aligned in practice and perception with the Republican Party, pursuing almost exclusively a one-party strategy for political victory.

In the 1980s and '90s, the power of the religious right was a defining feature of American politics. Ronald Reagan, a Republican, famously told a group of conservative Christians that "you can't endorse me, but I endorse you," the type of flattery that nearly gave his audience the vapors. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, ran for president making rhetorical concessions on the issue of abortion (it should be "safe, legal, and rare"), and while in office he signed the Defense of Marriage Act and made school uniforms a cause célèbre. But although Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson influenced Republican presidential primaries as favorite candidates of the religious right, it was George W. Bush who finally cracked the glass ceiling and was elected as the first president leaders of the Religious Right could claim as "one of us."

But conservative Christians learned that the political power to elect a candidate is different than the political power to govern. Sure, the White House hosted James Dobson each year for what amounted to a "kissing of the ring" session to mark the National Day of Prayer that Dobson's wife Shirley established a non-profit to support. Bush called for a "culture of life" at major public forums, and made a push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage during his second term. Yet the substantive, lasting policy victories conservative Christians hoped for were not achieved: Abortion remained legal, no federal amendment to ban gay marriage passed, and school-sanctioned prayer time remained unconstitutional. Moreover, as the original leaders of the religious right moved out of leadership, the next generation of pro-GOP voices for conservative morality were not religious leaders, but political advocates: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins (a former Louisiana state senator).

As George W. Bush's approval ratings plummeted during his second term, many Christians who had been invested in the Religious Right movement began to reconsider their partisan posture in politics. In my conversations with Christian leaders and voters, I've found that there are two common motivating factors for this change. First, the political issues that draw Christian concern go beyond what the political system has suggested. Christian organizations have supported issues like prisoner rehabilitation, international development, immigrant services, and healthcare for literally centuries in this country. The legacy of Christian political activism in America spans not just the culture wars, but America's founding, the abolition of slavery, and the advancement of civil rights. To Christian leaders, and many Christians themselves, it was incomprehensible that they came to occupy such a small space of our political discourse. How could it be that they could elect a nation's president, but lose its politics?

But Christians also faced a similar and still more pressing question: How could it be that they could elect a nation's president, but lose its people?

Two books in the late 2000s helped answer that question.  In 2007, Unchristian, a book written by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman based on original research, sent shockwaves through the church that continue to resonate. They found that young non-Christians have profoundly negative views of Christians. For instance, among 16- to 29-year-old non-Christians, Christians were viewed as "anti-gay" (91 percent), judgmental (87 percent), hypocritical (85 percent), sheltered (78 percent) and—surprise—"too political" (75 percent). In 2010, respected academics David Campbell and Robert Putnam's landmark book, American Grace, concluded that partisan politics was directly to blame for the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans. "The growth of the nones," Campbell argued, "is a direct reaction to the intermingling of religion and politics in the United States." Jonathan Merritt was more blunt in his assessment of the impact of a partisan faith: "As American Evangelicals have become more partisan, American Christianity has suffered as more shy away from the faith."

For Christians, this research confirmed what they were experiencing in their own lives: an open antagonism in the culture toward Christian ideas and doctrine; a sudden change in conversations when they mentioned their faith; the assumption of their politics that came with a knowledge of their faith; the sudden need to make clear that they were "not that kind of Christian." Pastors increasingly found that a partisan politics was pushing people away from faith  and causing tension among those in their churches. Things had to change. 

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Michael Wear is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He previously led faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 election campaign and worked in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

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