US evangelicals question Republican ties

Women praying Before he launched his eventually unsuccessful presidential bid, Texas governor Rick Perry held a day-long prayer event, asking God to fix America's woes.

After an election where conservative social causes failed to convince voters, evangelical Christians are pondering their relationship with the Republican party.

Christian conservatives used to be referred to as the "base of the base" of the Republican Party - voters whose strong religious ideologies meant the party could count on them to support "family values" candidates and initiatives.

George W. Bush, after all, won re-election in 2004 thanks to strong turnout from evangelical voters in the crucial swing state of Ohio.

After the 2012 election, evangelical leaders are contemplating what it means that conservative Republicans lost so badly, and that social issues championed by the religious right also suffered defeat. They are also questioning whether they still have a place in the world of politics.

There was a time when leading evangelicals had a very powerful position inside the Washington DC inner circle. The rise of the religious right in the late 1970s and early 1980s heralded an era in American politics in which social conservatives very much shaped the Republican agenda.

"[Evangelical leaders] Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson … found open arms in the Reagan administration as well as in both Bush administrations and were critical in helping the Republican party succeed in the Republican revolution of 1994," says Jonathan Merritt, author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.

Latinos: The new face of faith?

As Republicans cast around for ways to reach out to a changing America, one group in particular has caught the eye of Republican strategists: Latino Catholics. "[Hispanics are] a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example)," wrote party stalwart Charles Krauthammer after the election.

But it's not that simple, says John Echeveste, founder of the oldest Latino marketing firm in Southern California: "What Republicans mean by 'family values' and what Hispanics mean are two completely different things… We are a very compassionate people, we care about other people and understand that government has a role to play in helping people."

In return for an outpouring of support, politicians pushed agendas dear to the evangelicals, such as opposing gay rights and abortion and promoting the teaching of "intelligent design" in schools along with evolution.

Evangelicals still vote overwhelmingly Republican. White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney (79%), a similar level of support to that received by President George W Bush in 2004. And evangelical voter turnout was higher in 2012 than in 2004 - despite concerns they would stay away, put off by Romney's Mormon faith.

But around them, the world is changing. Taking a hard stance against gay marriage and abortion once rallied the evangelical base without alienating moderates in the party. But now those positions can be politically damaging - just ask failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin (of "legitimate rape" infamy).

At Barack Obama's first term comes to an end, there has been a sizeable demographic shift in the US when it comes to voters and faith.

According to a recent survey, an increasing number of Americans are giving up on religion. The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life found that one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation, and, with few exceptions, are not seeking religion.

Dr Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Theological Seminary, says this "acceleration of secularisation" is what made social conservatives, and their agenda, lose so badly in November.

He acknowledged the religious right is losing its political power.

"When evangelicals look at this kind of election pattern, their first thought is, we need to get more evangelicals out to vote. I don't think that's going to be a winning strategy simply because there aren't enough evangelicals who didn't vote. There just aren't enough evangelicals."

But he thinks it's important to stay the course, even as Republicans may move towards more centrist positions.

"The last thing evangelicals can do is run from conviction," he said.

"Evangelicals, precisely because we are evangelicals, hold to a very high view of scripture and that leaves anyone who genuinely wishes to identify as an evangelical with little room to negotiate these issues in light of prevailing cultural norms.

"Evangelicals may well have to learn how to live into a minority position against the larger society moving in a different direction."

Some influential evangelicals, however, are questioning the value of politics at all.

Rick Warren

"In the 2000 decade, the term "evangelical Christian" in America became associated with a political position rather than a theological position," says Pastor Rick Warren, founder of the Saddleback megachurch, in an interview with BBC World Service's World Update programme.

"At that time, George Bush was president, he was a well-known evangelical. People assumed if you're an evangelical, then you support everything that George Bush supports whether it's war in Iraq, or anything else. That's nonsense."

To Warren, associating with politics risks alienating potential members of the church.

"Evangelical is a religious term, but it got co-opted by politics. A lot of people said if that's what it means to be a Christian, or if that's what it means to be an evangelical, no thank you."

At the same time, some younger evangelicals have come to embrace progressive politics.

"We've grown up knowing people who are gay. In the older generation it was out there and seemed scary and different. For younger people, these people are our friends, our family members," says Tim King, communications director for Sojourners, a Washington-based Christian organisation that promotes social justice.

Writer Jonathan Merritt, himself an evangelical Christian, agrees: "Today's Christians don't want the test of their faith to be a fight over one particular political issue or another.

"Rather, they believe our faith calls on us to speak out on a range of issues, from caring for the environment to protecting the poor, looking out for immigrants and waging peace."

In other words, just as the country has grown more diverse, so too have the values and politics of the evangelical voter.

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