Today's New York Times Magazine section features David Kirkpatrick's "The Evangelical Crackup." Most of the article will be familiar to those who follow contemporary religion and politics. Kirkpatrick discusses the dissatisfaction of the religious conservative base with W, the movement of some evangelical leaders towards "green" and "social justice" views typically more associated with liberalism, and the despair of evangelical conservative kingmakers with the current crop of Republican candidates. "Not for me, my brothers," Dobson proclaimed of Giuliani. Kirkpatrick follows the travails of some pastors in Wichita, formerly a stronghold for religious conservatives (as bemoaned in Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas), but treated here as symptomatic of the fracturing of the evangelical coalition.
Of course, political fortunes ebb and flow. As we've discussed on the blog before, rumors of the "death of the religious right" are greatly exaggerated, just as the triumphalist rhetoric of religious conservatives after the 2004 election proved to be hubris. The dance between religious belief and political activism will continue, and religious conservatives will remain a significant power as long as they continue to mobilize significant numbers of voters, and as long as they address serious moral issues that concern many Americans of various political stripes. Politically categorizing evangelicals has never been as simple as the press sometimes has made it out to be, and Kirkpatrick's article is pretty good in terms of showing a diverse spectrum of evangelical opinion.
None of this agonizing over the limits of politics would be surprising to Reinhold Niebuhr. Like Jesus, Niebuhr seems to have self-proclaimed adherents on all sides of the current political spectrum. Today's Speaking on Faith features some oral excerpts from Niebuhr's preaching -- I had not realized fully before the moral urgency and charisma he conveyed in his public speaking. See Moral Man and Immoral Society: Rediscovering Reinhold Niebuhr, another stimulating hour of radio courtesy of Krista Tippett.
More to the point here is that the article reminds us that the "b" word -- bigotry -- is alive and well in certain sectors of the evangelical coalition. The slandering of McCain in the South Carolina primary in 2000 (remember his illegitimate biracial child, South Carolina evangelical voters? Oh, and thanks for the memories, Karl Rove) was an example of the way politicos can play on this ugly underside of the base. Here's another one, ripped from the current campaign. Memo to Dobson et al: there's a snake in your garden. And, in god's name, when the hell are you going to deal with it? What more, in the name of love?
In the Wichita churches this summer, Obama was the Democrat who drew the most interest. Several mentioned that he had spoken at Warren’s Saddleback church and said they were intrigued. But just as many people ruled out Obama because they suspected that he was not Christian at all but in fact a crypto-Muslim — a rumor that spread around the Internet earlier this year. “There is just that ill feeling, and part of it is his faith,” Welsh said. “Is his faith anti-Christian? Is he a Muslim? And what about the school where he was raised?”
“Obama sounds too much like Osama,” said Kayla Nickel of Westlink. “When he says his name, I am like, ‘I am not voting for a Muslim!’ ”
Fox, meanwhile, is already preparing to do his part to get Wichita’s conservative faithful to the polls next November. Standing before a few hundred worshipers at the Johnny Western Theater last summer, Fox warned his new congregation not to let go of that old-time religion. “Hell is just as hot as it ever was,” he reminded them. “It just has more people in it.”
Fox told me: “I think the religious community is probably reflective of the rest of the nation — it is very divided right now. This election process is going to reveal a lot about where the religious right and the religious community is. It will show unity or the lack of it.”
But liberals, he said, should not start gloating. “Some might compare the religious right to a snake,” he said. “We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time.”