Evangelical Voters May Be Up for Grabs in '08

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Who's Leading Now?

In recent years, the Christian conservative movement has splintered, and leaders have emerged with views that don't always fall on the far right of the political spectrum. Click on the image below for an overview of some of the movement's new leaders.

The death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell marks a changing of the guard for religious conservatives that has been under way for several years.

In the 1980s, Falwell mobilized millions of evangelicals. But today, younger Christians are becoming restive with the old style and focus. In fact, some pollsters say that more than 40 percent of white evangelical voters could be up for grabs in the 2008 election.

Beyond the Wedge Issues

Two months before he died, Falwell gave a televised sermon about global warming. It was vintage Falwell: grand, pugnacious and, he admitted, politically incorrect. Falwell said that the danger to society is not global warming, but the green movement itself. He worried particularly about evangelicals involved in the green movement: They were being distracted from moral concerns, such as abortion, gay marriage, violence and divorce.

"It is Satan's attempt to redirect the church's primary focus," Falwell said in March to his 22,000-person-strong congregation at the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.

"I'm telling these guys they need to get off that kick," Falwell said, "because the idea is to divert your energies from the message and the mission and the vision of the church, to something less."

But change is afoot in the evangelical world. Comments from high-profile evangelical leaders like Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson are no longer taken as gospel truth.

To get an idea of how far some evangelicals have traveled since Falwell's heyday, I visited Joel Hunter at his mega-church in Orlando, Fla. Hunter's vision of the "correct" evangelical view of the environment seems to come from a different continent — or a different God.

"Let me tell you one of the reasons I'm so keen on taking care of the environment," he told his 7,700-member church recently. "It's not just that it's beautiful, which it is. But it's the first order we had when we got put into the garden: Cultivate it and keep it."

Hunter is a new kind of evangelical: conservative about abortion and gay marriage, but also engaged in other issues, such as the environment. And he's leading his conservative flock in the same direction.

A Focus on the 'Compassion Issues'

On a recent Saturday morning, I arrived before 7 a.m. at Northland church. The "creation care" team was already assembled and zipping themselves into white HAZMAT suits. The nine church members would spend the next five hours sorting through a week's worth of rubbish generated by the church, picking through diapers, coffee filters, aluminum cans and the occasional pizza crust.

"If we want to reduce the church's waste stream, we have to know what's in it, and there's only one way of doing that," explained church member Raymond Randall as he pulled on white surgical gloves. "So we divide the trash into different parts of the church where it's generated, and then sort it into 35 different categories," such as paper, plastic and glass. The group then sorted through the smelly debris, looking for ways to reduce waste.

This is called "creation care," Randall told me — and it comes straight from the Bible.

"We're called to be good stewards of all of our resources," he said. "Our time, our money, our relationships, our talents that we have. And I think the church is realizing that includes our earthly resources as well."

Realtor Denise Kirsop confessed she was a little surprised to find herself recycling trash on a Saturday morning, rather than showing houses or riding her motorcycle. She said she has always been more conservative than green — until recently.

"A friend of mine suggested I join the group and I thought, 'What?!' I thought of environmental activists and I thought, 'I don't think that's a good fit,'" she said, laughing. "And then I started exploring it and praying about it. And the more I prayed about it, God revealed that this is a very strong passion for me."

And that newfound passion for the environment could tip an election — if these so-called swing evangelicals cast off their moorings and drift away from the Republican Party. For her part, Kirsop says neither party wins on the issues.

"I do look at same-sex marriage, at abortion, the war issues — and now I'll be looking at environmental issues in a different light," she said, adding that she could be persuaded to vote for a Democrat because they scored higher on the so-called compassion issues.

This band of jump-suited Christians would not call themselves revolutionaries. On social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, they're very conservative, as are most members — and the pastor — of Northland church. But their "green" tendencies reflect broader unrest among evangelicals about how Christians should live out their faith.

A Generational Shift

For years, groups like Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council adopted a narrow strategy. They zeroed in on "below the belt issues" — abortion and more recently, homosexuality. Politically, it worked. Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Northland Pastor Hunter says he hasn't changed his beliefs about pro-life issues one bit.

"The problem has become that we have paid so much attention to the human being in the womb that we have forgotten about the human being out of the womb," Hunter said. "It's become such a focus for some leaders that they don't want to address the other pro-life issues, such as climate change, such as poverty, such as AIDS."

Last year, the Christian Coalition asked Hunter to become its president. He agreed, as long as he could spotlight attention on non-sexual issues, such as the environment and poverty. At the last moment, both sides got cold feet and the union was called off.

It was an early test of what may be a coming generational shift. For years, Falwell, Robertson and Dobson dominated the Christian message. But now, some younger evangelicals are complaining that the old message focuses more on what Christians are against than on what they are for.

I got a sense of this at Northland church, talking with Robert Andrescik, 35. He observed that Jesus spoke far more of helping the sick and the poor than he did of sexual morality. And the people Jesus rebuked were not the sinners, but the religious leaders.

"The message there is, if we're living it, and we are compassionate ourselves, that will draw people unto God more than these vitriolic sort of attacks," he said. "If we're going to be like Christ, we have to embrace these compassion issues."

In fact, polls show that a generation gap is emerging. Evangelicals under 35 say they are far more worried about the environment than their theological elders were, and more likely to favor bringing American troops home from Iraq. These younger evangelicals are looking for new role models who match them both in substance and in style. As I talked with people at Northland, one name came up repeatedly.

"I think Bono has done such an amazing job with helping us to see how we could be the generation that eliminates AIDS in Africa," Andrescik said, adding that he identifies far more with Bono, who is not an evangelical, than with the traditional leaders like Robertson or Dobson.

Wavering Political Allegiances

Now, lest you think Northland church is a hotbed of Democrats, let's be clear: Most of the people I interviewed outside the Sunday service — as well as most evangelicals nationally — voted Republican in years past and lean that way now. But several said their choices are bleak. George W. Bush is an evangelical, but so far, they say, there's no one in this election so far who is similarly in tune with their issues.

That creates a dilemma for Northland member Ruth Sapp, who was coming out of service on a recent Sunday morning.

"I still believe that same-sex marriage is not Biblical," she said. "So I wouldn't vote for someone who contradicted."

Ditto about abortion, she said. So what happens if all the candidates fall short on these moral issues?

"I wouldn't vote for anybody if that were the case," she said. "I guess I'd have to skip my vote for that go-around."

Voters like Sapp terrify the Republican Party — or at least they should, says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

"Depending on the candidates, it could well be the case that evangelicals say, 'We're just really frustrated with politics. We don't like the choices. We don't think Sen. Clinton is a good choice or Sen. Obama — but on our side, we're not really pleased with Mayor Guiliani. And you know what? We're not going to vote,'" he said. "And I'm sure there will be pollsters saying, 'Karl Rove thought 4 million staying home in 2000 was a lot. Well guess what? 12 million stayed home.'"

Cromartie doubts there will be such a large shift. But even if a small percentage of these new evangelicals stay home or vote Democratic, that could translate into a couple of million votes. Far less is needed to become president. In Florida, the home state of Northland church, George W. Bush won by 537 votes in the year 2000 — a small fraction of the worshippers streaming into the church on any given Sunday.

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