The Evangelical Right in Disarray

The leaders of the religious right don't have great affection for John McCain. They think he's too moderate on immigration, embryonic-stem-cell research and campaign-finance reform, and they think he doesn't do enough to promote his pro-life positions. (Article continued below...)

That's where they agree. But as the 2008 general election unfolds, it's clear that their movement is in disarray—in a transitional period that could diminish its influence this cycle. For decades, right-wing kingmakers used their sway with voters to pick candidates and set a national agenda at the polls and in the courts. But McCain's candidacy has tamped down their enthusiasm, exposing fractures that make a rallying of the troops in the pews unlikely.

The right's issues are mostly generational. The conservative Christian activists who came of age with the Rev. Jerry Falwell—and experienced in 1980 the exhilaration of electing a president who represented their values—are in their 70s. Falwell died last year, and no younger pastor has taken his place as a spokesperson (lightning rod?) for the kinds of social-conservative stances he believed in. "Maybe we've done our job," says Chuck Colson, 76, the former Nixon aide-felon turned born-again Christian. "The Christian public is much more educated about politics than they ever were."

Some on the right want to tone down the rhetoric. Whereas attacks on Falwell's divisive words used to come mainly from secular outsiders, Christian insiders now rebuke their brothers and sisters for hate talk that once passed for business as usual. In this election, if a card-carrying Christian partisan such as John Hagee or Jeremiah Wright Jr. has endorsed a candidate, that candidate has had to repudiate the endorsement or risk being sullied, or further sullied, by the association. Hagee endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 and Bush wasn't tainted.

Meanwhile, megapopular evangelical megapastors such as Rick Warren, who did take stands on core issues four years ago, are keeping mum or urging moderation. Dallas-based preacher T. D. Jakes prayed on a conference call with supporters of Barack Obama on the eve of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries—but reminded listeners his prayers were nonpartisan. Colson, former senator John Danforth and evangelical intellectual Os Guinness have all written books over the past several years begging Christians for a more tempered conversation among the faithful.

Young evangelicals reflect their pastors' diffidence. As conservative as their parents in most respects—and more conservative in opposing abortion—many young evangelicals are fatigued by the culture war (and have greater worries about $4 gas). They say they don't want to be Republican just because that's what's expected. Only 40 percent of evangelicals 18 to 29 identify as Republican, down from 55 percent in 2001, according to the Pew Research Center. This slide correlates to the recent broadening of the evangelical agenda to encompass social-justice and global-poverty issues, as well as to Bush's low popularity ratings. Alan Jacobs, 49, an English professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, says the younger evangelicals he teaches tell him, "I have a very deep and instinctive attachment to the pro-life movement, and I don't think I'm going to be able to vote for someone who holds the views that Obama has, but I don't see how I can vote for John McCain. So I'm kind of stuck."

The right's influence may be felt in unexpected ways. Jim Wallis, editor of the progressive evangelical journal Sojourners, sees an opportunity for Obama in the swayable Christians that Jacobs talks to. He says Obama could get between 35 and 40 percent of the evangelical vote (and late last month Wallis encouraged Obama to advocate for fewer abortions as a way to gain evangelical support). That's irrationally exuberant, but defections by young and moderate evangelicals don't help McCain with the base.

To which the McCain camp might say: so what? That's not where McCain needs to concentrate his attention to win. In 2004, so the gospel goes, Karl Rove found every last evangelical voter in every country church—and found 4 million Christian votes that he credited with defeating John Kerry. This year, it's the middle that matters, not the margins. The religious voters who are most critical may be America's 54 million Roman Catholics—conservative on abortion and gay marriage, but progressive on education and health care. While the right sorts through its growing pains, McCain may be focusing less on megachurches, more on mass.