Last year the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio, became a regular stop for journalists covering trends in Christian right politics. In 2004 its pastor, Russell Johnson, helped organize a campaign for a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and succeeded in having it put on the ballot for the November elections. It passed with 63 percent of the vote, and many believed that it gave George W. Bush his narrow margin of victory in the state and returned him to the White House. The following year, Johnson launched the Ohio Restoration Project with the goal of recruiting two thousand “patriot pastors” to register three hundred new voters each and bring them to the polls for “values candidates” in 2006 and beyond.

Johnson’s meetings and rallies began with a chorus singing hymns while images of the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, and American troops in combat moved across huge video screens overhead. Johnson would then speak of “the secular jihad against people of faith” and warn Christians against standing by, as Neville Chamberlain did, while the Jews died in Europe. Talking with visitors to his nondenominational evangelical church, Johnson, energetic and a skillful debater, spoke forcefully on “the bigotry against the teaching of Creationism,” the war against Christmas, and Roe v. Wade, which, he said, had led to the crisis in Social Security by killing millions of American taxpayers. He also described how he worked with other state activists, some with ties to national organizations, to create computerized lists of sympathizers in conservative churches throughout Ohio, and to follow up with the distribution of voting guides and the recruitment of volunteers to bring church members to the polls.

In the quarter of a century that Christian right activists such as Johnson have been mobilizing voters to oppose abortion and gay rights, and support prayer in the schools among other causes, conservative white Christians have moved gradually into the Republican camp. In the past two presidential elections, how often a person attended church was a better indicator of how he or she would vote than any other demographic characteristic—income, age, gender—except for race. Blacks voted strongly for Democrats. But those white voters who went to church once a week or more voted heavily for George Bush; those who went seldom or never voted in large measure for Gore, then Kerry, while those who went to church once a month split down the middle, just as voters in general did. The Republicans had, in other words, apparently become a quasi-religious party, and the Democrats the party of less religiously observant people and secularists.1

Johnson and his fellow Christian right activists speak of “values voters,” but most of these voters are evangelical Protestants. Evangelicals have a disproportionate part in what pollsters call the “God gap” between the two parties. They make up a quarter of the population—around 75 million people—and a far higher percentage of them are frequent churchgoers than are mainline Protestants and Catholics. Furthermore, the group as a whole has for a decade voted Republican in much greater proportion than the other two groups. In 2000, 68 percent of evangelicals voted for George Bush; in 2004, 78 percent of them did. Last summer, polls showed that the war in Iraq, corruption, and the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina had brought the evangelicals’ approval ratings for Bush and the GOP down by twenty points in just two years. But on the last Election Day they turned out in their usual numbers, and over 70 percent of them voted for Republican congressional candidates. White evangelicals have, in other words, become the GOP’s most reliable constituency, and they normally provide about a third of the Republican votes.

Christian right activists, most of whom are themselves evangelicals, claim credit for these votes. Further, the activists tend to speak as if they represent the evangelical community as a whole, and because they have made their voices heard, many nonevangelicals believe that they do. For many Americans, the very word “evangelical” conjures up a vision of people railing against liberals, secularists, homosexuals, and the teaching of evolution in the public schools. But such a view is inaccurate. Evangelicals are hardly identical with the Christian right, and moderate evangelical leaders have recently been making the distinction clear by publicly airing their differences with the right and challenging its positions on political issues.

Pollsters and political scientists—who create the statistics we rely upon—define evangelicals as those Protestants who emphasize the authority of the Bible, salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus, and the need to share their faith with others. The definition is a vague one, and necessarily so, for there is no bright doctrinal line separating evangelicals from other Protestants, and the group is theologically diverse. For example, evangelicals include Pentecostals, who believe that the Holy Spirit continues to work miracles among us, as well as members of the Christian Reformed Church (which holds that “the biblical teachings of predestination and election give us comfort because they assure us that no one and nothing, not even our own bad choices, can snatch us out of God’s hand”). The denominations include the sixteen-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, as well as numerous smaller groups such as the Mennonite Brethren, who are committed to nonviolence. But many evangelicals belong to nondenominational churches, and these range from fundamentalist groups with high doctrinal walls to “seeker” churches, which aim to attract people with little religious background and have low doctrinal requirements. Pollsters in fact differ in their classification of some churches, and they put African-American evangelicals in a separate category not only because they vote differently but because their religious traditions are different.


Mark A. Noll, a distinguished evangelical scholar, writes of evangelicalism as a set of impulses: “Biblicism,” “conversionism” (the emphasis on “new birth” as a life-changing religious experience), “activism” (concern for sharing the faith), and “crucicentrism” (a focus on Christ’s having redeemed mankind on the cross). “But these evangelical impulses,” he writes, “have never by themselves yielded cohesive, institutionally compact, easily definable, well-coordinated, or clearly demarcated groups of Christians.”2 Further, evangelicals express these impulses in different ways. According to polls, some 60 percent are biblical literalists, who believe, for example, that God created the universe in exactly six days a few thousand years ago, and who insist that their interpretation of the Bible is the eternal and only true reading of it.3

The others believe, as most mainline Protestants do, that the Bible should be read in light of the rest of human knowledge and that its interpretation is not a simple matter. Evangelicals tend to be more active than mainline Protestants in their efforts to propagate their faith, and most of their churches support missions abroad. But many evangelicals are content with “lifestyle evangelism”—that is, setting an example of Christian behavior to others. If there is a single characteristic that sets pious evangelicals off from most mainline Protestants, it is surely the depth of their involvement with the supernatural: the sense they have that God is at work in the world all around them and speaking to them personally. “God wants me to do this,” evangelicals say. “God told me.”

Many mainline Protestants find much about evangelicals exotic—not least their tendency to speak as if only they were Christians. But then, evangelicals are closer to the historical roots of Protestantism in this country. Evangelicalism dates from the revivals of the mid-eighteenth century led by men such as Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, and its key ingredients have not changed since then. For most of the nineteenth century, almost all American Protestants were evangelical Protestants, and their religion the dominant cultural force in the country.

Evangelicalism inspired all the reform movements of the day, such as abolitionism and feminism, but for progressives and conservatives alike, America was a Christian (read Protestant) nation guided by Providence and a model for mankind. A person was responsible for his or her own fate, the Bible was central to intellectual life, and plain common sense the intellectual standard. Around the turn of the century, new currents of thought, among them Darwinian evolution, the higher biblical criticism, which analyzed the origins of biblical texts, and the Social Gospel—which traditionalists accused of putting social reform before conversion and salvation—coursed through the churches in New England and elsewhere in the north. The conservatives waged a bitter struggle against them, but the new thinking gradually took hold in the major denominations. From that time on, many evangelicals have seen themselves as an outcast minority and as the saving remnant keeping Christianity and the American tradition alive.

Evangelical churches are hardly museums. To the contrary, it’s the mainline churches with their stained glass windows, their clergy in vestments, and their organists playing Bach that may seem like museums next to the evangelical megachurches, with their video screens and their rock ‘n’ roll music. Evangelical pastors and revivalists have always adopted popular styles in the attempt to save the largest number of souls, but since the Sixties their embrace of many elements of the popular culture has been in some tension with the nineteenth-century ideas the traditionalists sought to conserve.

That the traditionalists have been as successful as they have over the long term is owing in some measure to the fact that until the Sixties the great majority of evangelicals lived in the South, where modern progressive ideas about science and society did not much penetrate, and where social conservatism reigned. Then, too, evangelicals were the poorest and least educated of the religious groups. Since the Sixties, however, white evangelicals have made the greatest gains of any religious group in income and education; they are now more evenly distributed across the country, and many more now live in cities, towns, and suburbs than in rural areas.


All this has increased their power and visibility—while at the same time diluting the fundamentalist strain in their beliefs and attitudes. Even conservative pastors now preach that Christians should embrace their prosperity and enjoy themselves in Christian settings. In a few evangelical colleges and seminaries, scholars such as Mark Noll, who formerly taught at the evangelical Wheaton College and is now a professor at Notre Dame, seek to disentangle what they see as the pure, bright elements of the faith from the baggage of populist anti-intellectualism that has accompanied it. In many others, students debate the politics of the Christian right.

Right-wing evangelicals have long been involved in politics—notably in the anti-Communist crusades of the Fifties and Sixties—but the Christian right, as we know it today, began as a reaction against the social upheavals of the Sixties and Seventies, among them the civil rights movement, the anti–Vietnam War protests, the sexual revolution, feminism, and gay rights. The movement at first lacked organization, but that changed in 1979, when Paul Weyrich, a conservative Catholic and a post-Goldwater New Right activist, convinced Jerry Falwell to create the Moral Majority, to bring conservative Christians into the Republican Party.

Since then, Christian right organizers have been increasingly influential in shaping the issues and mobilizing voters for Republican “values” candidates. In twenty-eight years, they have built a formidable alliance of grassroots organizations, Washington-based political action groups, legal defense funds, think tanks, and political training institutes. Even more important, they have enlisted evangelical televangelists and radio broadcasters and built networks of tens of thousands of pastors to get out the vote on Election Day. At state and local levels, Christian right activists have run for office and otherwise integrated themselves into Republican Party organizations with the help of GOP strategists. A 2002 study showed that the Christian right had strong influence in eighteen state Republican Parties and a moderate influence in twenty-six others.4

Christian right leaders and their organizations have come and gone. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, which in the mid-1990s claimed a thousand chapters in all fifty states, went into debt and lost most of its members after problems with the IRS and the departure of its president, Ralph Reed, in 1997. At present Dr. James Dobson is by far the most powerful figure in the movement. An evangelical child psychologist who dispenses advice on marriage and child-rearing, he is the host of a daily radio program that reaches five million listeners in the US and has built a multimedia ministry, Focus on the Family, which brings in over $130 million a year from donations and sales of books, DVDs, and other items. Long involved with Christian right causes, Dobson has created a number of advocacy organizations that are independent of Focus but closely allied with it. One of them, the Family Research Council, under the leadership of Tony Perkins, is now the most powerful Christian right lobby group in Washington. In addition Dobson chairs the Arlington Group, a forum where the leaders of more than seventy “pro-family” organizations meet to discuss strategies. In fact, much of the coordination that exists among Christian right activists is done through the organizations Dobson has built or supported.5

Talking with such activists across the country I have heard about a great variety of issues from euthanasia to pornography. Russell Johnson calls for a voucher program that would allow children to attend Christian schools at taxpayers’ expense. Rod Parsley, a nationally known televangelist, denounces Islam and writes that “America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed.”6 Many leaders, including Parsley and Dobson, argue that the Founding Fathers had a Christian vision for the nation and that the separation between church and state is no more than a myth invented by “activist judges” in the past half-century. At a rally two years ago Dobson said that “for forty-four years the Supreme Court has been on a campaign to limit religious freedom. It goes back to 1962 with Bible reading and 1963 with prayer in the schools, both prohibited.” The leaders of the movement often categorize their concerns as “life, family, and faith.” Still, some of their organizations have opposed gun control legislation; and many, if not most, activists support aggressive, unilateralist foreign policies and favor a free market unfettered by government restrictions.

David Barton, who has served as vice-chair of the Texas Republican Party and written extensively on “the myth of separation,” went so far as to tell a gathering of pastors in 2005 that the Bible takes a clear position against the capital gains tax, the estate tax, the progressive income tax, and the minimum wage. At election times, however, Christian right leaders concentrate their public campaigns on the few issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, that have broad resonance among evangelicals and other conservative Christians.

For many years now, Republican political strategists have counted on religious right activists to bring evangelicals to the polls for them. The Bush White House has assiduously courted their leaders,7 and Republican contenders for the 2008 presidential election, among them former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, are now trying to do the same. In his last run for the presidency in 2000, John McCain called Falwell and Robertson “agents of intolerance”; last June he gave the commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University. “The Republican Party does not have the head count…to elect a president without the support of the religious right,” Falwell said in 2004. McCain, among others, has clearly come around to this view.8

Republican politicians, in other words, have come to believe that the religious right speaks for most evangelicals—or, more precisely, that religious right activists will continue to bring the great majority of white evangelicals to the polls. If one message of last year’s election was that moderate voters rejected Republicans in part because they adopted the extreme positions of the religious right, Republican strategists face something of a quandary. But are they correct in assuming that the religious right now represents evangelicals generally? Much about the political future turns on the answer to this question.


Surveys taken since the Eighties show that evangelicals are more conservative than the population as a whole on economic as well as social issues. They are on average less affluent than white voters generally, but they are more in favor of large tax cuts and less supportive of affirmative action and poverty relief programs. Their views baffle economic determinists, who argue that they betray their own interests; but then evangelicals have historically preached that society can be reformed only through the salvation of individuals, not through social action or government intervention. In regard to foreign policy, they tend on the whole to be more unilateralist than others and less in favor of government efforts to fight global hunger and disease. However, the polls that distinguish “traditionalist” evangelicals—defined as committed churchgoers who hold conservative religious beliefs—from their less observant and less theologically conservative brethren reveal significant ideological differences between the two groups. According to these surveys, traditionalists, who make up half of the evangelical population and represent the core constituency of the religious right, have far more conservative views on all issues than the rest.

Statistically, the extreme conservatism of the traditionalists skews the picture of the community as a whole. In fact, “modernist” evangelicals—defined as those who go to church infrequently and don’t hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible—have more liberal views on all issues, including abortion and gay rights, than the American population as a whole, but there are relatively very few of them. “Centrists,” or those who fall somewhere in the theological middle and make up almost half of all evangelicals, are no more conservative than Americans generally except on abortion and gay rights, and even on these issues they are far more moderate than the traditionalists.9 In other words, half of the evangelical population doesn’t see eye to eye with the other half. In the future the division may become more acute because while the Christian right leaders have become more ambitious and more aggressive as a result of their victories, centrist leaders have, for the first time, begun to assert themselves.

During the past two years, a half-dozen prominent evangelicals have published books denouncing the religious right for what they said was its equation of morality with sexual morality, its aggressive intolerance, its confusion of church and state, and its unholy quest for political power. Some of the authors, like former president Jimmy Carter and Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, had already been dismissed by religious right leaders as liberals or “pseudo-evangelicals.” But two of them, Reverend Gregory Boyd and Dr. Joel Hunter, were pastors of very large conservative churches, Boyd’s in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Hunter’s in Orlando, Florida.10

In his book, a collection of the sermons that he gave the year before—sermons that caused a fifth of his congregation to leave the church—Boyd challenges the idea that the United States was, and should be, a Christian nation. Taking his text from the gospels, he reminds evangelicals that Christ’s kingdom was “not of this world” and that Jesus rejected Satan’s offer to make him ruler of all the principalities and powers of the earth. There can be no such thing as a Christian nation, he argues, because worldly kingdoms are the domain of fallen man, and they are by their nature coercive. What do evangelicals mean, he asks, when they say they want to “take America back”? The Constitution says nothing about a Christian nation, and the United States never was one—certainly not in the days of slavery or in those of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Many evangelicals, he charges, confuse the power of the cross and the power of the sword, and many in the name of fulfilling biblical prophecy are “actively supporting stances that directly or indirectly countenance violence, possibly on a global scale.” In Boyd’s view, Christians should bear witness to injustice, as Jesus did, but they should not try to enforce “their righteous will on others.”

Such polemics surprised many observers because in the past a sense of communal solidarity, or a fear of ostracism, had made public criticism of the right all but taboo among evangelicals. Yet for some years a number of centrist leaders have been expressing discontent with the right, some directly, but most by departing more or less radically from the right-wing agenda. Rich Nathan, for example, the senior pastor of the Vineyard Church of Columbus, Ohio—a megachurch not many miles from Russell Johnson’s—preaches that the Christian message cannot be reduced to issues of sex or private morality, and that the emphasis should be on Jesus’ teachings about the poor and about peacemaking. “Our focus in this church is on racial reconciliation and issues of poverty,” he told me. “The Vineyard association has 650 churches in this country, and you won’t find any one of them that’s not involved with the poor.” Nathan believes that churches should stay out of politics—that they shouldn’t campaign for candidates or lobby for legislation—but he speaks his mind on what he considers the moral issues. After the revelations of Abu Ghraib, he preached against torture, and last fall he called the Iraq war “a senseless slaughter” and asked how Christians can claim to follow the Prince of Peace and yet “be led so easily into war.”11

Traditionalist evangelicals, with their focus on individual salvation, see charity and evangelization as the way to change the lives of the poor. But centrist pastors, such as Rich Nathan and Joel Hunter, preach the need for social justice and have enlisted their huge congregations in anti-poverty programs for those of all faiths in cooperation with local governments. “It’s not about charity,” Nathan said. “It’s about getting to the root causes of poverty and correcting injustices, such as racial and gender discrimination.” His church, for example, supports “fair-trade coffee”—an international program that seeks to ensure that living wages are paid to coffee growers around the world—and has a free legal clinic for those needing help with their immigrant status, domestic violence, or tenant-landlord disputes.

In October 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella organization of denominations and churches that claims thirty million members, issued a position paper laying out ten principles for Christian political engagement. The document, “For the Health of the Nation,” called upon evangelicals to seek justice for the poor, to protect human rights, to seek peace, and to protect God’s creation—as well as to protect the sanctity of human life and nurture families. Carefully drawn up so as not to provoke right-wing opposition, the document gave official sanction to the efforts of the more progressive leaders to move, at a national level, beyond both the religious right agenda and the traditional evangelical approach to good works.

In Washington, Richard Cizik, the NAE’s vice-president for governmental relations, has supported the experienced evangelical aid organizations World Relief and World Vision in lobbying for a major increase in US aid for development, debt relief for the poorest countries, cuts in domestic agricultural subsidies, and the inclusion of labor standards and human rights conditions in trade agreements. (Two years ago World Vision campaigned against the Central American Free Trade Agreement because it lacked such protections.) Centrist leaders have also lobbied the administration for more money to fund the global campaign against AIDS, and for a variety of human rights causes, including the deployment of a strong United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur.12

Of all the new initiatives by centrist evangelical leaders, the most controversial concerns global warming. Richard Cizik had what he said was “a conversion” on the subject in 2002 after Reverend Jim Ball, the head of a small group, the Evangelical Environmental Network, took him to a scientific conference at Oxford. After the NAE made “creation care” one of its priorities, Cizik spoke out passionately on the subject of climate change and helped Ball with his efforts to recruit others to the cause. In February 2006, eighty-six evangelical leaders signed a statement expressing alarm about man-made global warming and calling for a mandatory curb on carbon emissions. The signers included Todd Bassett, the chief of the Salvation Army, thirty-nine evangelical college presidents, and several megachurch pastors, among them Joel Hunter. “Millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors,” they wrote.13

The statement, with its implied criticism of the Bush administration and of free market economics, provoked an angry response from the right. Even before it was released, James Dobson, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and others wrote the NAE that global warming was not a consensus issue and raised enough opposition on the board to prevent Cizik and the president of the NAE from signing it. Dobson, for his part, argued that a campaign against global warming would distract evangelicals from their mission to oppose abortion and support family values. When Cizik, among others, continued to speak out on the issue, Dobson and his allies mounted a public campaign to get him fired. But in its meeting this March, the NAE board not only stood by Cizik on the issue of global warming, but endorsed a strong statement drawn up by a committee—of which Cizik was a member—condemning US policies that permit torture and the indefinite detention of prisoners without trial.14

Important support for these centrist initiatives has come from Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Life, the pastor of a huge church in Orange County, California, and, next to Billy Graham, by far the best known of all evangelical preachers. Just before the 2004 election, Warren sent out a letter to his network of 150,000 fellow pastors telling them that pro-life and pro-family issues should determine how evangelicals voted. But he sent the same network a letter urging them to put pressure on Bush to increase foreign aid, provide debt relief, and eliminate trade barriers that hurt the poor. The following year he called upon his own 22,000-member congregation to support an effort in Rwanda, backed by its government, to alleviate hunger, teach literacy, and slow the spread of AIDS.

His ultimate goal, Warren announced, was to enlist millions of Christians worldwide in the struggle against poverty, illiteracy, and disease. Like Cizik, he had gone through a form of conversion. “I have been so busy building my church that I have not cared about the poor,” he told pastors in Kigali. “I have sinned, and I am sorry.”15 Warren doesn’t criticize Christian right leaders, but in the past year he has scandalized them by signing the February 2006 global warming statement, by publicly condemning Bush administration policies that permit torture, by making a trip to Syria, and—worst of all—by inviting Barack Obama to speak at his second global AIDS conference. What will come of his international project is not yet clear, but simply in espousing such causes, Warren influences many evangelicals in this country.

The defection of the centrist leaders from the religious right’s agenda has thus far had no obvious effect on the evangelical vote. Still, religious right leaders worry that it will. John Giles, the president of Christian Action Alabama, a powerful conservative evangelical state organization, told the Financial Times that he saw the broadening of the centrist concerns to such issues as the environment and poverty as an effort to divide evangelicals and weaken the religious right. “We can all unite around a few core issues, such as abortion, pornography and gambling,” he said. “But when you start talking about global warming, the minimum wage or the death penalty, the consensus breaks down.”16 Dobson and Perkins have said much the same thing.

What Cizik calls “below the belt issues”—plus a lot of talk about faith and values—have brought many centrist evangelicals into the Republican camp; but they have other concerns, including economic security, peace, and a clean environment, that the Republican Party, under the influence of the religious right, has not served well. Persuaded to consider these as moral issues on a par with, say, opposition to gay rights, centrists might make new demands on the Republican Party—or question their allgiance to it. Global warming may well be an important issue in the 2008 election campaign. Immigration policies—about which the evangelical right and center are completely divided—will surely be an issue, too. In any case, if centrist leaders continue to challenge the religious right’s agenda in public, they will eventually convince politicians—Democrats as well as Republicans—that the religious right does not speak for all evangelicals and by doing so diffuse “the culture war.” This is in essence what the religious right fears.

—March 28, 2007

This Issue

April 26, 2007