Since 2004, the story goes, evangelicals have softened. Sure, they still care about abortion and gay marriage. But a new, outspoken generation also cares about global warming, Darfur, illiteracy, human trafficking, preventable disease. The era of divisive religious rhetoric, characterized by James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, is past. Eager to help care for the planet, these Christians are building bridges between left and right, between the secular and the devout, even among subscribers to different holy books. These "new" evangelicals, according to the mainstream press, are exciting now because they're politically powerful. As Frances Fitzgerald put it in The New Yorker this summer, they have the potential to "change the Republican Party beyond the recognition of Karl Rove or doom it to electoral defeat for many years to come."
Not so fast. If the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican veep candidate means anything, it's that conservative Christians—the kind who listen by the millions to Dobson's "Focus on the Family" radio program and were galvanized to vote for Ronald Reagan thanks to Falwell—are still numerous and powerful. Of the 60 million white evangelicals in this country, 60 percent of them believe the Bible is literally true. More than a third believe the end of the world will occur within their lifetimes. Palin, despite her fresh young visage, speaks directly to them. Her pro-life credentials are obvious and beyond dispute. She was raised in the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination with an end-times theology that emphasizes adherence to a strict moral code: no tobacco, no alcohol, no social dancing. (Also no premarital sex, but never mind.) The senior pastor of that church, in sermons that circulated online before they were taken down last week, preaches hell for anyone who isn't saved by Jesus. America does not know enough yet about what Palin personally believes, but her church background—she now worships at a nondenominational Bible church—puts her squarely in the tradition of the old-school religious right. The media narrative about the revitalized evangelical center isn't wrong. It's just half the story.
It's been interesting to watch the "new" evangelicals wriggle with discomfort as the old ones hail Palin as the Second Coming. Just after John McCain announced Palin as his pick, Dobson was on the radio, saying he was as happy as he was the day Reagan was inaugurated. Meanwhile, evangelical elites and moderates struggle to embrace Palin's pro-life views without fully embracing Palin herself. Part of their hesitancy is snobbishness. Alan Jacobs, a professor at Wheaton College, thinks that if Palin went to an evangelical church in some well-heeled suburb, "and named her kids what she named her kids, and had the kind of eccentric take on things that she has, she'd be worrisome to people. But somehow she's from Alaska, that seems to soften people's criticism. They don't want to be critical of her because she's so dramatically pro-life."
Younger Christians express disappointment that the rules of the game have changed so little. Cameron Strang is the 32-year-old publisher of the Christian magazine Relevant and an advocate for the new evangelical agenda. That evangelicals are pro-life is stipulated, he explains. But young Christians had become hopeful in recent years that they might look beyond abortion to other issues—a change in perspective that could lead to a vote for Sen. Barack Obama. Palin backs these Christians into a corner. "She hasn't addressed issues of concern to younger Christian voters," says Strang. "All of a sudden, it's us versus them and you have to pick a side. With abortion as a wedge issue, it's going to be harder and harder for moderate Christians to feel OK supporting Obama." Everything new is old again. Palin's candidacy revives the religious right, the abortion debate and the pit-bull advocate for both. The only difference is the lipstick.