Evangelical Voters May Be Up for Grabs in '08 The death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell marks a changing of the guard for religious conservatives that's been under way for years. Younger Christians are becoming restive, interested in issues beyond abortion and gay rights. Some pollsters say theirs votes could be up for grabs in 2008.
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Evangelical Voters May Be Up for Grabs in '08

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Evangelical Voters May Be Up for Grabs in '08

Evangelical Voters May Be Up for Grabs in '08

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The death of the Reverend Jerry Falwell marks a changing of the guard for religious conservatives, a change that's been underway for several years. In the 1980s, Falwell mobilized millions of evangelicals and brought them into politics.

But as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, younger Christians are becoming restless and some pollsters say that more than 40 percent of the white evangelical vote could be up for grabs in 2008.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Two months before he died, Jerry Falwell gave a televised sermon about global warming. It was vintage Falwell. The danger to society, he said, is not global warning, but the green movement itself. He was especially worried that evangelicals are being distracted from moral concerns - abortion, gay marriage, violence and divorce.

Reverend JERRY FALWELL (Founder, Moral Majority; Minister, Thomas Road Baptist Church, Virginia): It is Satan's attempt to redirect the church's primary focus. I'm telling these guys that you need to get off that kick, because the idea is to divert your energies from the message and the mission and the vision of the church, to something less.

HAGERTY: To get an idea of how far some evangelicals have traveled since Falwell's heyday, here's mega-church pastor Joel Hunter in Orlando, Florida speaking a few weeks ago on the same subject.

Pastor JOEL HUNTER (Northland Church; Global Warming Activist): When God - let me tell you one of the reasons, I'm so keen on taking care of the environment. It's not just because 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.

HAGERTY: Hunter, who pastors this 7,000-member Northland Church, is a new kind of evangelical - conservative about abortion and gay marriage, but also engaged in other issues, like the environment.

(Soundbite of people sorting trash)

HAGERTY: It's already warm at 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning in Orlando. Nine members of Hunter's church are putting on white hazmat suits. For the next five hours, they'll sort through a week's worth of rubbish generated by the church - picking through diapers, coffee-latent filters, aluminum cans and the occasional pizza crust.

Mr. RAYMOND RANDALL (Member, Northland Church): So we're going to divide the trash into different parts of the church where it's generated, and then we're going to sort it into about 35 different categories - a bunch of different paper categories, plastic categories, glass categories.

HAGERTY: Raymond Randall herds the group over to the dumpsters and soon they're sorting through the smelly debris, looking for waste to reduce waste.

Mr. RANDALL: Rubber gloves with mysterious item in it. Ooh.

Unidentified Woman: Ooh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAGERTY: This is called creation care, he says, and it comes straight from the Bible.

Mr. RANDALL: We're called to be good stewards of all of our resources - our time, our money, our relationships, the talents that we have. And I think the church is realizing that that also includes our earthly resources as well.

HAGERTY: Realtor Denise Kirsop confesses she's a little surprised to find herself recycling trash, rather than showing houses or riding her motorcycle. She said she's always been more conservative than green — until recently.

Ms. DENISE KIRSOP (Member, Northland Church; Real Estate Consultant): A friend of mine suggested I join the group and I thought, what? Because I always thought environmental activists and I don't really fall in that category, you know? And I'm, like, what? I don't think that's a good fit for me. And then I started exploring it and I was praying about it. And God revealed to me that, actually, this is a very strong passion for me.

HAGERTY: 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.

Ms. KIRSOP: I do look at same-sex marriage, abortion, the war issues - and now I'll be looking at environmental issues in a different light. So I'm not sure…

(Soundbite of giggling)

Ms. KIRSOP: …where I'm going with the candidates.

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

Pastor HUNTER: The problem has become that we have paid so much attention to the human being in the womb that we forgot about the human being out of the womb. 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.

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

It was an early test of what may be a coming generational shift. For years, Falwell, Pat Robertson and James 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're for.

I got a sense of this at Northland Church, talking with 35-year-old Robert Andrescik. He says 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.

Mr. ROBERT ANDRESCIK (Member, Northland Church): I think the message there is that if we are compassionate ourselves, you know, that will draw people unto God more than the vitriolic, you know, attacks. You know, if we're going to be like Christ, we have to embrace these compassion issues.

HAGERTY: 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, 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.

(Soundbite of song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For")

BONO (Vocalist and Guitarist, U2): (Singing) But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

HAGERTY: As I talked with people at Northland, one name came up repeatedly.

Mr. ANDRESCIK: I think Bono has done such an amazing job with, you know, helping us to see how we could be the generation that eliminates AIDS in Africa.

HAGERTY: Andrescik says he identifies with Bono more than with traditional leaders, like Robertson or Dobson.

Mr. ANDRESCIK: But I think that's indicative of my generation and, you know, even people younger than myself.

HAGERTY: 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 one of them, but so far, there's no one in this election who is so in tune with their issues.

That creates a dilemma for Northland member Ruth Sapp.

Ms. RUTH SAPP (Member, Northland Church): I still believe that same-sex marriage is not biblical. So I wouldn't vote for someone who just had a complete contradiction to that.

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

Ms. SAPP: I wouldn't vote for anybody if that were the case. I'd have to skip my vote for that go-around.

HAGERTY: Voters like Ruth Sapp terrify the Republican Party - or at least they should, says Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

Mr. MICHAEL CROMARTIE (Vice President, Ethics and Public Policy Center): Depending on the candidates, it could be well the case that evangelicals say, you know, we're just really frustrated with politics. We don't think Senator Clinton is a good choice or if it's Senator Obama, we don't like that choice. But on our side, we're not really happy with Mayor Giuliani.

And you know what? We're not going to vote. And I'm sure there will be all kind of wonderful pollsters who will come out and say, you know, Karl Rove thought four million staying home in 2000 was a lot. Well, guess what we just found out? Twelve million stayed home.

HAGERTY: 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.

(Soundbite of indistinct conversation)

HAGERTY: Here in Florida, the home state of Northland Church, George Bush won by 537 votes in the year 2000 — a small fraction of the worshippers streaming into the church on any given Sunday.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

NORRIS: You can read more about the new leaders of the religious right and where they stand on political issues at our Web site, npr.org.

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