Whither the evangelicals?
Today's Washington Post reported on some anecdotal findings to the effect that some evangelical Christians are having second thoughts about their support for the Grand Old Party. Might some of them actually defect to the Democrats, or will they just stay home on November 4? Part of the problem is deep disappointment with President Bush, a devout born-again Christian who actively courted evangelicals in 2000 and 2004. Obviously, after the various moral and ethical scandals of recent years (Sen. Larry Craig, Rep. Mark Foley, Sen. Ted Stevens), some erosion of support is to be expected.
In fact, such erosion might not necessarily be a bad thing. The role of the Christian Right in this campaign puts a spotlight on the precarious nature of a coalition that relies so heavily on people of faith. When people become politically active because of some moral issue or cause (e.g., abortion), there is always a risk that they will cease political activity when compromises are made for the sake of passing legislation, etc. For those who live by absolute standards of Good vs. Evil, the messy world of politics quickly becomes a big turn-off. Conversely, devout people who get elected have a hard time abiding by their religious tenets and still carrying out their public duties, and some of them become disillusioned or even corrupted. These are some of the points that former Senator John Danforth made in his book Faith and Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together; see my Oct. 4, 2006 blog post. I think that the less that religious faith is used to mobilize political support, the better off our country will be. (The same goes for exploiting patriotic sentiment for political ends.)
The question of evangelical voting behavior also has special significance for "Battleground Virginia," which is in danger of slipping back into the Democratic column in the presidential race. After the Christian Right cemented its ascendancy in the Virginia Republican Party at the convention in late May, it became clear that there is a "new wind blowing." The name of the game in the GOP today is not being "Left Behind," if you want to have a role. As for the voting public in general, however, the strength of evangelicals remains to be seen. If Republican candidates don't watch out and heed the concerns of pragmatically-oriented voters, some of them may be "left behind" on Election Day.
But the problem is not just with social conservative zealots. You might compare the fervent, true-believing evangelicals on the Right (mostly) to the fervent adherents of the "Cult of Barack Obama." Trying to explain why some people are so passionate about their support for particular candidates or causes is beside the point, because it defies rational explanation. Political activism isn't always based on a person's opinion on particular policy issues, but often serves to vent deep inner frustration and spiritual anxiety in people who believe that they deserve more in life than they are getting. Parties and candidates who are astute enough to sense the societal undercurrents can tap into such latent political support and win elections in an upset. The best examples from modern times would be John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, who were both charismatic but with a good measure of grace and modesty. On the other hand are the candidates who think they have captured the public imagination but then get caught up in their own glory and quickly lose support. Barack Obama, still "wet behind the ears," might be such a case.