Amy Sullivan and the Alleged Evangelical Left
I remain skeptical about evangelicals' ability to change as quickly as everyone is saying--after all, they're still fighting evolution, in a century-out-of-date battle that literally no one but evangelical ideologues even takes seriously--but after reading this article, I started thinking about how well Barack Obama has done among even conservative evangelicals, and he has done so by making a specifically religious, but non-conservative, appeal. On abortion, for example, he has said that he disapproves of abortion personally, but that he thinks women are the ones best able to make the choice, and in the meantime he's hoping to reduce the number of abortions in America through education, condoms, etc. And it seems to be enough for certain evangelicals to overcome their resistance.
Similarly, on homosexuality, Obama has been uniquely brilliant in his use of religion: From one rally at a black church, there's this story:
"Now I’m a Christian, and I praise Jesus every Sunday,' he said, to a sudden wave of noisy applause and cheers. 'I hear people saying things that I don’t think are very Christian with respect to people who are gay and lesbian,' he said, and the crowd seemed to come along with him this time." (via Towleroad)
So it suddenly strikes me that Amy Sullivan has a point at almost exactly the same place where David Kirkpatrick's much-ballyhooed New York Times story "The Evangelical Crackup" fails to interpret what's happening: it's not that evangelicals are changing their personal religious views (though, as David Sessions, quoting David Kinnaman--lotta Davids here!--points out in this article, younger evangelicals are 15% more likely to not care about homosexuality as a moral issue), but that they are more likely to be able to square their personal religious views with voting for a Democratic candidate. So it's not a hugely significant moral or theological change--I imagine that even pro-gay evangelicals tend to focus, not on homosexuality, but on the call to chastity in general for all Christians, which doesn't help the gays all that much--but it has a lot of potential to change things politically.
And I suspect we have the record-setting unpopularity of George W. to thank for this. In the same way that he has inspired this incredibly early election season (as states crowded to the front of the line, impatient to be able to weigh in on Bush's replacement), Bush's effectively conservative-evangelical Presidency has finally inoculated a certain percentage of the evangelical voters against the idea of a theocracy after all. "Maybe religion can be separate from public life!" you can almost hear them saying.
It's a thoroughly pragmatic position. Just as "let's ban evolution!" lost in court and turned into "let's teach creation and evolution side by side," and then lost again and became "let's call it Intelligent Design and talk about God only obliquely" is a strategy of necessity--a way of fighting a losing battle by shrinking the arena without ever actually giving up--so maybe allowing America to treat anti-abortion and anti-homosexual ideas the way evangelicals have tended to treat help for the poor (it's a call to personal responsibility, not a necessary public policy everyone should be forced to follow) is a way of redefining the battlefield smaller so that evangelicals can maybe win it this time around. In this respect, you could say that nothing helps pragmatic democracy like the failure of an ideal.