Which way does God bend on global warming? Or on environmentalism in general?
The passage of Jerry Falwell has raised attention in the big papers to the political future of the evangelical christian community. Once characterized by undiluted political support for the platform of the Republican party, evangelical preachers now sound less partisan and more humanitarian. Darfur, AIDS, and even the long-time Democratic calling card of environmentalism are getting coverage in the sanctuary and over the air.
Young evangelicals are more liberal. They are more tolerant of gays and more concerned for the environment. They are still Republican, but they are steadily pulling one of the party’s pillars toward traditionally-liberal causes. The messages of preservation and of equality are messages that touch on very deep values, so this is understandable.
Falwell and others founded the Moral Majority in the late ’70’s, to give evangelicals a political voice. But this effectively handed over doctrinal decisions to political operatives, and the resulting “Republicanism” has led to some jarring policy stances.
Pro-lifers spoke of the integrity of life while cheering on bloody wars and military interventions. Those who preached concern for the poor supported reductions in child-care programs, food stamps, and Medicaid. People who argued that morality should be enforced at home quickly traded morality away for the anything-goes mentality of Reagan- and Bush-era foreign policy, in which morality was for naive pansy idealists who didn’t understand the need to win.
The Republican party definitely got far more out of the deal than the evangelicals. They got unquestioning support for every cause they put forth, which helped lift the elephants out of perennial-minority status in the early 90’s, and George W. Bush was elevated to the status of de facto archangel in the War on Terror. In return for this enthusiastic political and financial support, christian conservatives saw their faith adulterated in the service of political constituencies, and were lured away from central christian principles, such as nonviolence and concern for the poor. Further, the evangelicals’ capacity to be loyal and unquestioning was exploited to maximum effect by an often-mocking party leadership, while the faith-based initiative turned out to be all talk and no political will.
Evangelical loyalty has been pushed to the breaking point, partly by the Iraq war: Reverend Gregory Boyd split his megachurch’s congregation in 2006 with a refusal to preach a Republican political agenda. His decision not to announce anti-gay rallies, endorse candidates from the pulpit, or openly support the war were a dramatic departure from the norm. Other churches were happily juxtaposing Jesus, the flag, and fighter jets in video montages backed up by singing choirs. It was a move that cost Boyd over a thousand congregants.
The true questions will have to do with how Evangelical leaders reconcile the mandates of their faith with their 30-year allegiance to the Republican Party. Who controls whom? Which authority will turn out to be the truly higher power? In the case of environmentalism, it’s plain that politics has driven theology; opposing liberals, rather than opposing Satan, was the motivator behind Falwell’s global-warming denial. Might the evangelical movement lose political clout if it becomes divided? Will it lose energy for its core causes as debate about new topics enters the culture? Will people who disagree strongly over “going liberal” on issues like global warming or AIDS in Africa be able to unite against abortion with the same intensity as before?
Evangelicals may fall for the lure of remaining powerful by staying linked to the Republicans, but that power will only be reflected light. They should look at Tony Blair’s example: he took on support for the Iraq war, because to oppose it would be to expose Britain as a bystander in world affairs. His gamble left him paying the price for the failure of his decision on the merits. Religious and political leadership both ultimately depend on their base, not their allies, for their power. Evangelical leaders would do well to listen closer to the shifting mood of their congregations and beware the temptations of White-House handshakes and televised prayer breakfasts in Washington, DC.
PS: props to Glenn for his piece on the parallel schism between the Dems and the progressive left.