By the Way: Religious Right Losing its Grip?

It’s not every day that universities produce news that has an impact on the world of religion. But recent dispatches coming out of the University of Notre Dame and from Regent University, Pat Robertson’s school in Virginia, certainly fit into that category and may be a harbinger of changing attitudes and shifting political winds.

From Virginia Beach, Virginia, comes word that a student organization called Regent Democrats has been granted official status at Regent University. The report, by Steven G. Vegh of the Virginian-Pilot, suggested that the school’s chancellor himself, Pat Robertson, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, gave his approval to the new group. “People are realizing that being Christian does not always equal Republican,” Heather Carr, a divinity student at Regent, told Vegh. “Your faith should direct your politics, not your politics directing your faith.”

What an idea!

And from South Bend, Indiana, some equally unexpected news. The University of Notre Dame recently announced that President Barack Obama would give the commencement address this May, and will also receive an honorary doctor of laws degree. Unsurprisingly, the announcement was greeted with protests from conservative Catholics who object to Obama’s pro-choice position on abortion and to his recent directive to expand the parameters of stem-cell research.

John M. D’Arcy, the Roman Catholic bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, declared his intention to stay away from the commencement proceedings, and the Cardinal Newman Society, based in Manassas, Virginia, has collected petitions asking that the president of Notre Dame rescind the invitation to Obama.

Such protests from hard-right Catholics are predictable. What might be tad surprising, however, is that Notre Dame has no intention of buckling to such pressures.

In the words of Buffalo Springfield, “Something’s happening here.”

The rift between younger evangelicals and the Republican Party has been widening for several years now. Put simply, younger evangelicals—and, apparently, even those at places like Regent University—disagree with the older generation of religious right leaders who insist that the only salient moral issues are abortion and same-sex marriage. This younger generation sees the world differently, recognizing a much broader range of moral concerns: hunger, poverty, the War in Iraq, torture, and the environment. The fact that Chuck Colson and James Dobson and other old-guard leaders of the religious right sought to debunk global warming served as a kind of wake-up call for younger evangelicals, who recognized that they would have to deal with an issue so blithely dismissed by the religious right and the Republican Party.

These younger evangelicals, along with a growing number of Roman Catholics, also recognize that the tired debate over abortion has produced nothing but a stalemate over the last three-plus decades. So when Barack Obama, the presidential candidate, and Barack Obama, the president, declared his intention to address the abortion issue from a different angle, evangelicals and Roman Catholics took note.

Obama has staked out the rather sensible position that the way to diminish the number of abortions is not to legislate against the practice, which almost certainly will create a huge backlash and arguably represents an infringement of liberties. The way to diminish the incidence of abortion, he counters, is to diminish demand through sex education and the availability of contraceptives. The only way truly to bring about meaningful reform on this issue is to change the terms of the conversation and alter the moral climate. Besides, the only thing that both sides of what currently passes for debate over abortion agree on is that making abortion illegal will not have a significant effect on the number of abortions.

The developments at Regent University and the University of Notre Dame suggest that younger evangelicals understand that, as do a growing number of Roman Catholics. The reflexive position that it is impossible to be both an evangelical and a Democrat or a Catholic and a Democrat no longer obtains. Something’s happening here.

randall.balmer@dartmouth.edu'

Randall Balmer, Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences at Dartmouth College, is the author of a dozen books, including The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. He wrote, produced and hosted a PBS documentary on Billy Graham, Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham.