The following is from the June 12, 2008, edition of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Robin W. Lovin is the Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics at SMU.
No matter what happens in November, the long primary season has already changed the relationship between religion and American politics.
Both of the leading Democrats broke with their party's recent past and spoke openly about the importance of faith in their lives. Part of what fueled the controversy over Jeremiah Wright's sermons was that Barack Obama had already made it clear that the church was an important source of his moral and political values. His differences with his former pastor are not likely to change that more basic affirmation as his campaign goes forward toward the general election. On the other side, the close connection between evangelical Christians and Republican presidential politics has been strained by John McCain's success, and many conservative Christian leaders remain skeptical about the candidate.
The candidates, however, are only part of this realignment. Important changes are happening among the people they are trying to reach. The alliance between religious and fiscal conservatives probably made the difference for Republicans at the ballot box in 2000 and 2004, but their coalition had already begun to fracture in 2006. Absolute moral positions are not easily sustained in the give and take of politics, and in any case, evangelical Christians have discovered that there are other issues besides support for Israel and "family values" that engage their commitments.
Climate change and poverty in Africa have touched religious consciences in ways not easily squared with fiscal conservatism and laissez-faire economics. The public faces of what used to be called "the new religious right" have been the same for nearly two decades, but it is not clear that their voices still speak for a new generation of evangelicals who are more globally connected and more mission-oriented.
Likewise, the Internet generation that has been drawn into politics by Barack Obama wants a change in political culture that transcends the pragmatic secularism and economic coalition-building that have been key elements of Democratic strategy since the 1990s. They want to have a dream again, and the language of hope that they speak is inherently open to religious interpretation.
Republicans have their Internet generation, too, though they may be more energized by Ron Paul than by John McCain, and they may be the most secular among these new groups of political activists.
Whether they call themselves Democrats or Republicans, then, the generation that has been drawn into campaigns and causes over the past couple of years does not see politics the way their parents did. Their political awakening has been slow in coming, but it is likely to undo most of the conventional wisdom about how candidates should relate to religion and religious issues.
Just where all of this is going is still unclear. We may get a religious movement that is both socially conservative and globally aware in ways that refuse to line up neatly with the available political options. Instead of being a reliable part of someone's base, religious voters may become the new swing vote. Or the new generation may compel the politicians to redefine what the political options are. That will not happen quickly, if it happens at all, but the rhetoric of change that we now hear from both presidential candidates shows that they are alert to this possibility, and the results of the general election in November may give us hints of what this new politics will look like, or at least help to identify who will be shaping it.
Whatever happens in the short run, the public role of religion is likely to be fundamentally different in the next two decades from the neat packages of religion and politics that have been offered up by megachurch pulpits and cable television networks since the 1990s. Neither Jerry Falwell nor Jeremiah Wright gives us a model for the future. The future is more likely to appear in church basement discussions, on mission trips, and in kitchen-table Bible studies, where people of faith grope for ways to express their commitments in public terms.
Do not imagine some newer, greener "Moral Majority" that enlists thousands of people in service of a well-defined program, platform, or slate of candidates. Think instead of what went on in thousands of churches and synagogues, black and white, North and South, from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. People came to grips with racial justice in local terms, and a movement emerged from their efforts. They were not identifiable as a voting bloc until politicians figured out how to reorient their parties in ways that spoke to their concerns.
Such discussions are a challenge to religious leadership, because they can cause conflict in congregations and provoke resistance when they are carried into the wider community. The pastors, priests, and rabbis who once knew how to handle those pressures are rapidly passing from the scene. Also, it is not clear that the concrete acts of witness that once brought racial change to local communities can have the same effect on complex global problems, despite the popular admonition to "think globally" and "act locally."
The future may replace progressive, politically active religion with a sectarian faith that thinks globally, acts very locally, and avoids politics on a larger scale at all costs. But with good leadership at the local, congregational level--pastors, priests, rabbis, and now imams, too--the transitions in religion and politics that clearly have already begun may yield possibilities that deserve to be called "prophetic," because they reshape the political choices, rather than offering a religious endorsement of one or another of them.
Robin W. Lovin is the Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University. Link to his analysis of Mitt Romney's December 2007 speech on religion and politics, his essays on prayer and politics and on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his commentary on the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
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