Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Asia / Africa / Americas - Carribean / The Pacific / International > Letter from Washington: Evangelical feared, but multifaceted

Letter from Washington: Evangelical feared, but multifaceted

by Albert R. Hunt (in: International Herald Tribune, April 15, 2007)

Tuesday 17 April 2007

WASHINGTON: The evangelical Christian movement conjures up a very negative picture to many Europeans and to more than a few Americans. A Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll last year found that more than one-fifth of Americans would not vote for an evangelical Christian for president, far more than those who ruled out a Jew or a Catholic.

This picture is of a narrow, bigoted collection of pious people who wish to impose their politics and religion on the United States. It is reinforced by the likes of James Dobson, an influential religious leader who recently pronounced a Republican presidential hopeful, Fred Thompson, as insufficiently Christian. There is another portrait. It is contained in an interesting book, “Applebee’s America,” written by Ron Fournier, a journalist; Doug Sosnik, formerly a political strategist for President Bill Clinton; and Matthew Dowd, who helped run President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign. It focuses on the megachurches, home to much of the evangelical Christian movement.

The authors’ conclusion: “They’re not all gun toting, gay-bashing Republican Party pawns.”

The book notes that exit polls from the 2004 election found that 60 percent of the attendees at megachurches are women; almost one-quarter are African-American or Hispanic; half are independents or Democrats, and their views on issues like abortion and homosexuality are close to those of the general public.

This is the evangelical movement of Rick Warren, a best-selling author and head of the Saddleback Church in California, one of the largest congregations in America.

Warren and Dobson are a microcosm of the controversy and confusion over the role evangelical Christians play in American social and political life. Warren is about inclusion and hope. Dobson is about exclusion and polarization.

This is about more than two personalities. The religious right - a loose term for politically active Christian evangelicals - has played a big role in Republican Party politics since President Ronald Reagan. Yet there is a public backlash.

Superficially, these two evangelicals seem similar. Both are hugely successful authors who run ministries that resemble business conglomerates.

Warren’s church draws more than 20,000 worshipers each Sunday, has a $30 million budget and his global offshoots are mushrooming. Dobson’s Focus on the Family organization in Colorado publishes books, magazines and weekly newspaper columns and has a radio show.

The two men have similar political views: Both are against abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research, and they each promote generally conservative, “pro-family” policies. Both supported Bush in his 2004 presidential re-election campaign.

Their approaches to American political and social life, however, could not be more different.

Warren, to the consternation of some anti-abortionists on the religious right, invited Senator Barack Obama, Democratic of Illinois and a presidential candidate, to his church to talk about their mutual efforts to battle AIDS and world poverty. Warren is the establishment’s favorite evangelical leader, comfortable going to Harvard and the Aspen Institute to preach about Jesus and tolerance.

Asked about gay marriage, Warren echoes the party line, yet says it is not a high-priority issue. “I am not homophobic,” says Warren, who also pointedly dismisses the desirability of a “God party.”

He seems more at ease talking about AIDS and the need to preserve the environment. Still, he has enormous influence in the evangelical movement and does not seem preoccupied with whether he has a special pipeline to politicians.

Dobson is.

“Dobson thrives on a role as a political kingmaker” said Charles Kimball, a religion professor at Wake Forest University, in North Carolina.

And Dobson is willing to use almost any tactic, however incendiary and divisive. On his radio programs, publications and speeches, his favorite targets are gay civil unions, which Dobson would have you believe threaten the fabric of a moral society. He even has a program to “cure” gays.

Dobson deeply immerses himself in Republican Party politics. He was part of a regular conference call with White House operatives during the 2004 campaign and was consulted by Karl Rove, the Bush adviser, before the nomination of two Supreme Court justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. He has a close working relationship with a former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich.

A few weeks ago, Dobson declared that Thompson was not a Christian. That was news to the former senator from Tennessee, who figured this was simply a calculated Dobson move to help Gingrich, the other potential new Republican entry into the presidential race. Dobson, sure enough, soon praised a Gingrich candidacy.

Whatever you might think about Gingrich, he always has been a decidedly secular politician. And his personal life does not fit well with Dobson’s pious focus on the family rhetoric.

There are antecedents for this divide. Warren, though less political, resembles the Billy Graham, an evangelical minister, of an earlier generation. Graham drew the ire of fundamentalists in the 1960s by reaching across ecumenical and racial lines in his crusades.

Dobson is following in the footsteps of two preachers, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the Batman and Robin of the religious right who have long traded on fear mongering and personal invective.

Ralph Reed, a creative religious-right political operative, once noted the movement succeeded by flying below the radar. Its leaders could rally the faithful without alienating the larger population.

That worked until they overreached. Reed, a victim of personal greed, was ensnared in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and rejected as a political candidate in his home state of Georgia.

Then there was the Terri Schiavo case, where the religious right browbeat the U.S. Congress into intervening, under false pretenses, to try to force the authorities to keep alive a brain-dead woman. Much of the American public was appalled. It was a turning point.

Republican 2008 candidates beware: It is going to be a lot harder to fly below the radar screen especially if you are traveling with Jim Dobson.

Source: International Herald Tribune, April 15, 2007