The term “evangelical Christian” has been used and abused in political discourse for decades. Whenever I hear it, the first image that comes to mind is a superstar preacher like Jerry Falwell or Oral Roberts leading a congregation of 10,000 people in prayer, standing on stage adjacent to a gospel chorus, laying hands on churchgoers that have supposedly been possessed by the devil, and performing miracles like giving blind people sight again. Of course, this is all broadcast to some home in rural Missouri where a flashing phone number accompanies the images, begging for more money to keep the mega church afloat.
More pointedly, I think of the Moral Majority mobilizing for Ronald Reagan’s election campaign in 1980, an effort that found momentum in promising to bring God back into the classroom and limiting newly created abortion rights. I think of states in the Midwest that are as red as they come, with legislatures run for years by the GOP or “God’s Own Party.” I think of loud-mouthed politicians who still want creationism taught in science classes and refuse to let schools even talk about homosexuality.
Now, the reason why my mind makes such connections is because these things have been happening for decades, and when these hot-button issues come up in the news, the words “evangelical Christian” are typically not far behind. Moreover, it is not outrageous to infer that self-described evangelical Christians tend to support conservative candidates for office. In 2012, 79 percent of evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney (his Mormon faith apparently not enough to deter these voters from wanting the Protestant Atheist Muslim Barack Obama out of office), a statistic that matches evangelical support for George W. Bush in 2004.
However, as is the case with most special interest groups, the loudest voices tend to echo the furthest, meaning that Todd Akin’s brand of biology is not necessarily one that gets taught by preachers the country over. Evangelical Christians do tend to emphasize the supreme authority of Scripture in guiding one’s moral life and most likely fall on the ideological right of the political spectrum, but their beliefs are oftentimes more nuanced than we might give them credit for. For instance, a couple of weeks ago the lobbying group Evangelical Immigration Table spent $250,000 on ads in 13 different stages in support of the immigration reform bill currently being debated in the Senate. Support for such a measure makes sense, as the Christian notion of welcoming one’s neighbor figures implicitly into any kind of immigration reform policy. Moreover, it is not impossible to be an evangelical Christian and support gay marriage laws (consider the journey of Pastor Jim Wallis, for example).
Republicans even seem so worried about losing younger evangelical voters that they’ve hired a former state party chairman as outreach director for evangelicals and religious groups. evangelicals might be a reliably conservative bunch, but that does not mean that many of them cannot be convinced to support more liberal politicians or policies. How these trends might shift in the next few elections, especially as younger evangelicals come of age, will be interesting to watch in terms of policy outcomes.