The Kingmaker’s New Subject

There is an old hymn written by Fanny Crosby, sung at generations of camp meetings, which exclaims: "Crown Him! Crown Him! Prophet, and Priest, and King!" Since the emergence of evangelicalism as a cultural force in the 1950s, three approaches to politics, represented by three personalities, have emerged. They are the prophet, the priest and the kingmaker.

The prophet has been psychologist James Dobson, who dispenses child-rearing advice on the radio from his Colorado ministry, Focus on the Family. On family issues, Dobson's counsel is moderate and broadly appealing. On politics, his tone sharpens. He rails against compromise on social-conservative issues and seems continually poised to storm out of the Republican Party in protest, threatening to carry his millions of listeners with him.

The priest has been Billy Graham, nonpartisan confessor to presidents from Harry Truman to George W. Bush and presider at public events from Inaugurals to services of national mourning. His commitment to preaching the simple, undiluted Gospel has been total, but his approach to politics has sometimes been naive; his uncritical ties to the powerful have occasionally left him subject to manipulation. The priest was burned by a misplaced trust in Richard Nixon.

The kingmaker has been Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network. Robertson has a history of odd and disturbing public statements on issues from the causes of hurricanes to the assassination of foreign leaders. But as the son of a senator, he has generally taken a pragmatic approach to politics, with the goal of being a player rather than a prophet. After his own bid for the White House, Robertson founded the Christian Coalition to give the religious-right grass-roots clout within the Republican Party.

Graham's priestly role in American politics is gradually passing. But both of the other evangelical tendencies have been recently on display. Already in the current political cycle, Dobson has declared he could never support Rudy Giuliani, John McCain or Fred Thompson because of their various personal and political shortcomings. And a few weeks ago he participated in a Council for National Policy meeting which threatened to bolt the GOP if Giuliani is its nominee.

The kingmaker has gone in the opposite direction. Robertson's public endorsement of Giuliani last week surprised many. It should not have. His predisposition has always been to influence Republican politics from the inside. He has doubtlessly received assurances from Giuliani on the appointment of conservative judges and is calculating he can maintain influence within a Giuliani administration. But Robertson's endorsement of a pro-choice candidate has exposed deep political fault lines within religious conservatism. Add to this Paul Weyrich's endorsement of Mitt Romney, and Sam Brownback's support for McCain, and religious conservatives are fragmented as never before.

One effect has been to deprive former Arkansas governor (and former pastor) Mike Huckabee of support. He is the natural candidate of religious conservatives—strongly pro-life, pro-family, but also with a populist economic message. Huckabee is a candidate with Bill Clinton-like political skills, and he has fared well in straw polls. But religious-right leaders have calculated that Huckabee is not electable. Robertson's endorsement of Giuliani particularly irked him. "Our Web site went nuts with people saying they will never give money to Robertson again," Huckabee told me. "There is a disconnect," he said, "between past generational leaders in Christian conservatism and their own followers."

The use of the word "past" is purposeful and accurate. Leaders such as Robertson mainly exercise broad influence in the imagination of liberals. Evangelicals, particularly younger evangelicals, are undergoing a shift in attitudes. Many have little interest in the self-destructive purity of the prophet or the raw pragmatism of the kingmaker. They remain culturally conservative, but uncomfortable with a harshly judgmental tone in their politics. They find the model of the religious right too narrow and are increasingly motivated by a broader range of social concerns, from disease in Africa, to the environment, to racial reconciliation. And they want to be a witness to these values instead of a tool in the power games of others.

A recent article in The New York Times Magazine termed this trend "the evangelical crackup." But perhaps it is just maturity and a renewed appreciation of the way social change has taken place in the past. "The Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next," argued C. S. Lewis. "The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world, that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth 'thrown in': aim at earth and you will get neither."

Evangelicals are not retreating from politics, but they are moving beyond the religious right. The form that engagement will take is still uncertain—but it is likely to see politics as a means to social justice, not an end in itself, and to agree with the final line of Fanny Crosby's hymn: "Power and glory unto the Lord belong."

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