Vinita Hampton-Wright is a successful novelist. From Chicago’s south side, she protested the Iraq war and opposes the re-election of George W Bush. Former Bush supporter, Mark Bennett from Brooklyn, feels betrayed over his job loss and the lies about Iraq. He now campaigns for Kerry. My in-laws from Ohio are lifetime Republicans who will vote for Bush again. All are evangelical Christians on whom the Bush team has placed their largest bet for the November election. But underestimating the complexity of this constituency may be Bush’s great strategic mistake.
Arriving in the US seven years ago, my encounter with real America exploded myth after media myth that had coloured my Australian imagination. Among them: Harlem is not a ghetto war zone, US education is not second rate to Australian universities, white evangelicals are not necessarily Republicans, and the Christian ‘religious Right’ doesn’t speak for most American churches.
The religious canvas in the US is complex. Sixty million evangelicals express themselves throughout all the varieties of US protestantism. Rooted in German pietism from the 17th century, evangelicalism empowers any group that trusts the authority of the Bible as revealed truth to go and fulfil its mission ‘to tell the world of Jesus Christ.’
The religious Right in the US is a much smaller hybrid of politically extremist Christian fundamentalists. As activists under the evangelical umbrella, they appeal to those who would legislate morality into law for all of us. The religious Right are traditionalists, and white suburban conservatives like TV reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Evangelicalism is a more moderate movement than this, but also more conflicted. While most white churches in the US supported slavery, evangelicals from the original Republican party worked for its abolition. A century later, white evangelicals were largely absent from the civil rights marches, a betrayal of black Christians for which some are now publicly apologizing. But today, black and white US evangelicals lead the fight against AIDS in Africa and the modern trafficking in slaves.
Not everyone sees these complexities. In The Rise of the Righteous Army, 60 Minutes profiled religious right enthusiasts as representative of 70 million evangelicals (their figures). This was lousy journalism, made worse by featuring the record best selling ‘Left Behind’ book series as evangelical theology. 60 Minutes offended large numbers of evangelicals who are repulsed both by the political dogmas of the religious Right and this book series (detailing bloody judgement on a world that won’t accept the religious Right’s idea of Jesus).
On the other hand, Frontline‘s The Jesus Factor examined the faith of George W, demonstrating how sincere Bush is in his religious piety. And it explained his total embrace of white evangelicals. From Bush, they at last got the respect that they felt mainstream US culture had long denied them.
That documentary also exposed how Bush crossed the line into political manipulation of his evangelical constituency. His campaign advisor admitted on camera that Bush can win the election on the white evangelical vote alone, and doesn’t mind alienating Catholics, Jews and other minorities to do it.
So why has the Democratic party belittled and shunned white evangelicals for decades, reinforcing that group’s now-pathological mistrust of liberals? To call someone ‘liberal’ in the US is to many evangelicals the ultimate pejorative statement, and it’s applied to anyone offending evangelical values and beliefs. Against this enemy, the highly organized religious right subverts evangelical beliefs and practices, and a plethora of self-help books and religious novels from evangelicalism’s own publishing industry sustain a ghetto mentality. This is the flag waving American evangelicalism that better educated liberals love to hate.
But the tide may be turning. Democrats signalled a radical new attitude at their convention this July. And during the Republican convention in August, fifty evangelical leaders signed a full-page advertisement in the New York Times declaring: ‘God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat.’ The ad was backed by a petition from over 64,000 evangelicals, calling the positions of Falwell and Robertson of the religious Right “ lockstep with Bush “’bad theology and dangerous religion.’ These evangelicals called for an end to lying rhetoric that reduces the complexity of US foreign policy and its various wars, and issues of domestic US social justice. They also warned both parties to avoid exploiting religion and congregations for partisan political purposes.
Obviously Bush can’t bank on the evangelical subculture for a second term. Yet if Democrats and other liberals baulk at developing common ground with white evangelicals, they’ll lose the election.
Chris Gilbert is a journalism instructor, holds a Master of Arts in Religion and lives in the New York City area. His hometown is Maroochydore, Queensland.
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