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Base Running

The Christian right moves left.

Rick Santorum has enough trouble in his reelection race. The incumbent GOP senator has trailed his opponent, Pennsylvania State Treasurer Bob Casey, by double digits almost since Casey declared his candidacy. Santorum's campaign has been mired in questions about why Pennsylvanians pay to homeschool his six children in Virginia and about his involvement with the now-infamous K Street Project. Even Republicans have privately started to refer to Santorum's campaign as a lost cause and are lobbying party leaders to shift money to more promising contests. Santorum surely never thought that, in the midst of all this, he'd have to worry about his vote against the 2005 Climate Stewardship Act, an effort to cap greenhouse gas emissions.

And, yet, witness the scene at Messiah College last month. If Santorum, a devout Catholic who has distinguished himself by leading the fight against so-called "partial-birth" abortion, should have felt safe in any venue in the state, it was at the tiny Christian school nestled against farmland in the rolling hills of conservative south-central Pennsylvania. But, when the college convened a screening of The Great Warming--a documentary on climate change narrated by Alanis Morissette and Keanu Reeves--and invited Casey and Santorum to attend a follow-up panel discussion with Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the senator declined. It was probably a wise choice. When the lights came up in the auditorium, panelist Joseph Sheldon, a Messiah biology professor, tore into the senator, accusing him of selling out the environment to business interests. Question after question from the packed hall attacked Santorum's votes against the Kyoto Accord and for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It could have been the sort of thing that merited only a mild raise of the eyebrow--the fact that evangelicals care about the environment isn't news anymore, and besides, everyone knows that it's the more controversial sexual issues that drive their votes. But, in Pennsylvania, global warming is the deciding issue for some evangelicals. Both Casey and Santorum are pro-life, which neutralizes the abortion factor, and the NAE has made the Keystone State the testing ground for a new strategy--one that favors not the hot-button issues of abortion and gay marriage, which have traditionally helped Republican candidates, but other causes on the evangelical agenda that more closely track with Democratic positions. "There's going to be a lot of political reconsideration on this in the coming year," Cizik told me. "The old faultlines are no more."

In recent years, Democrats haven't viewed the evangelical community as the most fertile ground for political efforts and policy conversations--and with good reason. The past three decades have been characterized by an increasingly close relationship between evangelical organizations and the Republican Party. The two sides snapped into almost perfect alignment during the 2000 campaign, and, in the last election, 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for George W. Bush, thanks in large measure to big voter registration efforts--by groups like Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition--that aimed to sign up only Republican voters. Christian right organizations also distributed millions of voter-education guides that highlighted differences between the two parties (on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and prayer in schools) and left no doubt about which party or candidate held the "right" positions.

White evangelicals have become such a crucial part of the GOP base that many political observers now see them as the key to Republican victories at the polls. Karl Rove certainly seems to agree. He left his policy position at the White House last month partly to repair relationships with conservative evangelical leaders who are disappointed that the president they helped elect twice has given them nothing (two Supreme Court justices aside) in return. When these old-guard members of the Christian right supported Bush in 2000, they thought they would get a president who would fight tirelessly to outlaw sexual immorality.

But Rove is also reportedly worried about another group of evangelicals: the nearly 40 percent who identify themselves as politically moderate and who are just as likely to get energized about aids in Africa or melting ice caps as partial-birth abortion and lesbian couples in Massachusetts. These evangelicals have found the White House even less open to their concerns than their more conservative brethren have.

They have also been aggravated by the refusal of the Christian right's old guard to embrace new causes like the environment and global poverty. The American Catholic community faced this problem in the 1980s, when some bishops wanted to pursue an "abortion first" strategy while others promoted what Joseph Cardinal Bernardin called a "seamless garment of life" that included issues like the death penalty and nuclear proliferation. Bernardin and his supporters effectively lost that struggle within the bishops' conference, ending the debate for Catholics. The evangelical world, however, is different. There is no single leader or institution that dictates policy for all churches and congregants, so, if moderate evangelicals want to broaden their religious agenda, it doesn't really matter if conservatives like James Dobson or Chuck Colson disagree.

Enter the big-tent NAE, an organization that represents 59 denominations with 45,000 churches and 30 million members across the country--a formidable bloc of potential voters. For the past four years, Cizik, the group's vice president for governmental affairs, has led an effort to raise evangelical awareness about what he calls "creation care"--the idea that God gave man responsibility for looking after the Earth when He told Adam, in Genesis 2:15, to "watch over" the Garden of Eden "and care for it." One of Cizik's favorite lines is that, when he dies, God isn't going to ask him, "Rich, how did I create the Earth?" but "Rich, what did you do to protect that which I created?"

An evangelical who suggests that intelligent design is not the most important political debate of the moment isn't going to be popular with everyone on the Christian right. And, in fact, the old guard has targeted the creation-care initiative, pressuring the NAE to muzzle its own policy statement on climate change. But, while Cizik hasn't succeeded in making friends with Dobson, he has moved public opinion--63 percent of evangelicals in a March survey released by the Evangelical Environmental Network agreed that global warming is an immediate concern. Which is how a Democrat and an evangelical found themselves sitting on the same stage at Messiah College--not arguing about abortion, but agreeing about the environment.

Nor is the Santorum-Casey race unique. In Ohio's Fifteenth District, both Republican Representative Deborah Pryce and her Democratic opponent are pro-choice. In past years, evangelicals would have skipped this race in favor of supporting pro-life candidates in other districts. But this time, with abortion once again canceling out, the environment has become a key mobilizing issue for moderates, who abhor Pryce's record (she holds a measly 6 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters).

It's hard to know how all of this will influence this year's elections. But the symbolic value of the Messiah event has the potential to change the political topography. While the NAE may not turn out large numbers of its rank-and-file for Democrats, their praise helps blunt Republican attacks. For years, Rove and his ilk have attempted to scare up evangelical voters by crudely portraying Democrats as agents of cultural decay. Those attacks, however, will be far less effective if Democrats can point to the likes of the NAE and its ministers as proof of their faith-friendly bona fides.

Whether Democrats take advantage of this turning point remains to be seen. At the local level, they have made a good start, with unprecedented efforts by state parties to reach out to evangelicals. Following the example of newly elected Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, some Democratic candidates have launched ads on religious radio stations, and state party leaders have met with evangelical and Catholic leaders to "clear the air." In some cases, these gatherings represent the first time the two groups have ever sat down with each other. While Democrats know they won't win over conservative evangelicals, they realize there is an advantage to improving their image in the broader religious community. "You don't have to convert everybody; you just have to take the edge off," one state party leader explained. "Now that they've met me, they can see I don't have two horns and a tail."

Unfortunately, this enthusiasm in the states has not yet been matched by support from the national party. In part, that's because many professional Democrats continue to believe that evangelicals aren't "their" voters--or they confuse evangelicals with fundamentalists and so assume the whole demographic is out of reach. These assumptions may explain the general tone-deafness with which some leaders approach evangelicals. In the summer of 2005, an unnamed party official explained Democratic outreach to evangelicals this way to U.S. News and World Report: "We're dealing with a serious bloc of people, not just crazies with big Bibles." Imagine Ken Mehlman explaining Republican outreach to black voters by saying, "These are not just lazy high school dropouts."

When Howard Dean attempted to make things better in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he just made them worse. Tellingly, if unintentionally, he distinguished Democrats from Christians: "We [Democrats] have an enormous amount in common with the Christian community and particularly with the evangelical Christian community." And he bobbled the answer to repeated questions about the Democratic National Committee's (DNC) evangelical outreach efforts. First, Dean responded by mentioning that his chief of staff, Leah Daughtry, is a Pentecostal minister. Then, sensing that was insufficient, he named some black and Hispanic religious leaders with whom he had met as part of a "vigorous outreach program." Officially, the DNC has a name for this program: the "Faith in Action Initiative." Alas, that initiative--which Daughtry describes as a way "to help state parties develop faith outreach programs"--has done little to actually help state efforts, at least according to the handful of party chairs I called. And, while the party has hired a staffer to oversee outreach to black churches and is searching for another to meet with Catholics, there are no plans to hire a counterpart for white evangelicals.

After the panel discussion at Messiah College ended, the evangelicals who had filled the auditorium seemed cautiously impressed by Casey. Whether that translates into Democratic votes this fall may depend on what the party does to solicit them. One thing is for sure: Evangelicals are looking at Santorum with new eyes. The senator said he turned down the NAE's invitation to Messiah because of a previous commitment. And an important commitment it was. That evening, TV cameras caught him at Citizens Bank Park cheering on the Phillies. Once, Santorum might have been able to take the evangelical vote for granted. But, if he'd watched The Great Warming, he'd know: The climate is changing.

Amy Sullivan, a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly, is writing a book about religion and the left.

By Amy Sullivan