‘New Evangelical’-Progressive Alliance? Not So Fast

What do evangelicals want? Marcia Pally attempts to answer that question for at least some evangelicals in a recent essay at The Immanent Frame titled “Evangelicals who have left the right.” As with many previous pronouncements that something new—less judgmental, more generous—was afoot in evangelical-land, the little ripple of excitement around Pally’s essay gives me a distinct sense of deja vu. “The Beginning of the End of Christianism?” asked Andrew Sullivan; “The End of the Religious Right?” pondered Walter Russell Mead.

I’ve heard that ripple before—I watched Richard Cizik describe, in 2007, this “slow-moving earthquake”; in 2008 I covered a group of evangelicals unveiling “The Evangelical Manifesto” that Pally makes much of, though I’ve not heard a single person mention it since. Each election cycle since 2006 has generated a little burst of God-talk from Democrats in the hope of wooing disgruntled evangelicals from the GOP. It’s slow, alright, and perhaps more of a rumble than a quake. And while the durability of a new movement is always difficult to assess when it’s young, it is nonetheless already clear that the politics of the “new” evangelicals are more complicated than its evangelists often portray.

Pally’s essay is an update of her 2011 book and essay on the same subject, both of which appeared during the 2012 presidential campaign. In this latest essay she takes stock of evangelical voting trends in the election—79% of white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney—and seeks to persuade us, in spite of this rather homogeneous voting pattern, that they are not as monolithic as we might think. 

It’s true, of course, that the measure of a person’s religious and political beliefs is more complex than how she pulled the lever in the voting booth. And it’s also true, as Pally readily admits, that the religious right is still “robust.” Pally’s purpose, though, is not only to convince us that the “new” evangelicals exist—and on that point she is unquestionably correct—but that their views, habits, and activism represent (1) a fundamental shift from the religious right, and (2) potentially fruitful alliances with progressives and the Democratic Party. On both those points, she elides many complicating factors.

Pally spent years traveling the country and interviewing these “new” evangelicals, the ones she says are less interested in the culture wars, and more interested in helping others and the planet. She argues that “where there was once the appearance of a monovocal evangelicalism there is now robust polyphony,” along with changes in activism that have “re-routed the flow of evangelical money, time, and energy, and are changing the demands on the US political system.” On that last point, at least, we have yet to see much, if any, concrete evidence.

Take the recent uproar over Louie Giglio’s scrapped benediction at the inauguration. It’s an excellent example of how even a “new” evangelical still refuses to disavow the culture wars, even as he’s chosen to largely focus on another issue (in Giglio’s case, human trafficking). Giglio wasn’t known for jeremiads against gays, and President Obama had indeed previously approved of his work against the scourge of trafficking. But Giglio refused to back away from a 15-year-old sermon that could only be seen as an “old” evangelical invective.

Who was the victim here? The gays who Giglio’s listeners believed were sinners? His defenders say it was Giglio himself. One of his friends, the “new” evangelical Gabe Lyons (whose book Pally highlights in her essay) called the implicit pressure on Giglio to withdraw from the inaugural a “hate crime.” He walked back that charge after its inappropriate hyperbole was pointed out to him. But he still maintained that Giglio was “bullied” and that “January 21, 2013 may go down in history, as the day Americans lost their most important freedom—their freedom of conscience.” 

Among Lyons’ critics (like David Sessions* in post titled “you’ve got to be kidding, Gabe Lyons”) were evangelicals like Andrew Marin. But, unlike Lyons, Marin’s not exactly a member of what might be termed the “new” evangelical elite, and the evangelical ethicist David Gushee provides some insight as to why. In discussing the Giglio incident, he described to me how, “to be a senior level, you might say, highly respected evangelical leader, still seems to require affirming the traditional position [on homosexuality], it’s a matter of orthodoxy. You’re in, still in the community, if you can do it, if you’re not so sure about it anymore, then you’re pushed to the margins of your own community.”

If Giglio wanted to reconsider his views on homosexuality and adopt a pro-gay rights position, Gushee maintained, he would, in effect, “be disinvited from community in his own evangelical community.” Given the prospect of being ostracized by the still-predominant right wing of the evangelical world, a “new” evangelical may well choose to not speak at all about gay rights, thereby adopting what amounts to an anti-gay position. Lyons is a pillar of the “new” evangelical community, but what mattered more to him was not Giglio’s homophobia, but that “a pastor who once gave a sermon expressing his biblically based belief that homosexuality isn’t condoned does not deserve scorn.” (emphasis mine).

Gushee further argued that perhaps the Giglio incident caused lasting damage to the White House effort to reach out to evangelicals (and the outbreak of a persecution complex will hardly endear the evangelicals to the Democratic Party’s base). But there’s more trouble—even by Pally’s accounting. She hints that “new” evangelicals may resist Democratic Party politics because of their opposition to abortion and support of “small government-ism.” These positions, if they prove resonant with younger evangelicals in the long term, are huge impediments to a lasting political alliance—or even a fleeting one. Even if Democrats were to offer what Pally describes as “accessible, realistic alternatives, including medical, financial, and emotional support during pregnancy along with day care and job training post-partum,” that wouldn’t alter their fundamental opposition to legal abortion. (That, like viewing homosexuality as a sin, is portrayed as the only “biblical” position.)

What’s more, if the “new” evangelicals are for small government, would they only support such expensive programs if they were aimed at enticing women to carry pregnancies to term, and not because providing a social safety net to women who independently choose to carry an unintended pregnancy to term is just the right thing to do? Reproductive rights advocates have long supported the latter formulation. But Pally’s suggestion that “especially effective programs include pairing a pregnant woman with a local family to serve as her ‘family’ and help out as needed” are laughably paternalistic. How many women would decide against an abortion because a local family was, as Pally imagines it, available to “driv[e] the child to day care when the new mother’s car has a flat tire so that she can get to work and not lose her job”? 

Other examples similarly fail to withstand scrutiny. On the one hand, Pally maintains that the new evangelicals are mindful of the First Amendment’s protections of religion, citing their support for freedom of religious expression for Muslims. Yet she fails to mention other religious freedom conflicts, particularly the lasting controversy over the contraception coverage requirement under the Affordable Care Act, and whether “new” evangelicals agree with their conservative brethren that covering emergency contraception violates their religious freedom. Instead, she argues that evangelicals aim, as she calls it, to “restructure opportunity” in education and health care. This shift, she says, begins in church, which seems like a strange place to start reforming education if you support church-state separation.

Seemingly unable to grasp the fundamental First Amendment issues inherent in many of these concerns Pally glowingly describes “the over 200,000 Christians who contribute to a pool that covers members’ medical bills, handling over $12 million in medical expenses a year.” She’s referring to health care sharing ministries, whose advocates lobbied for an exemption from the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, a religious exemption granted statutorily but that raised red flags for First Amendment experts (in part because it feeds demands for more and more religious exemptions that are not constitutionally required). Because of their successful lobbying efforts for special treatment on religious grounds, HCSM members will not be penalized like other citizens for failing to comply with the individual mandate in the ACA. These HCSMs are hardly models of religious tolerance. The largest one, Samaritan Ministries, requires a confession of Christian faith and church attendance; in addition, pregnancies of single mothers and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases aren’t covered. 

While Pally portrays these arrangements as a shining example of how church-based altruism can substitute for government regulation, the reality is more complicated. Since HCSM supporters, with the help of the conservative powerhouse American Legislative Exchange Council, successfully lobbied for exemptions from insurance regulations in many states, the participants in HSCMs do not have the same protections that purchasers of conventional health insurance enjoy. Insurance companies are required by state law, for example, to maintain reserves to pay out claims. Because of their exemption from state insurance law, HSCMs are not required to maintain reserves, thus potentially leaving their members without coverage, and without recourse. Pally may admire how evangelicals have created their own church-based alternative to government-regulated insurance, but it’s not a less conservative solution to the health insurance crisis—it may be a more conservative one.

First Amendment issues likewise surround evangelical relief organizations that accept federal tax dollars to support their work, with the expectation that taxpayers fund their religious discrimination. Pally applauds the work of World Vision, but fails to mention that it receives millions of dollars in federal grants (does that conflict with “small government-ism”?) While World Vision performs many humanitarian relief projects around the world, it’s also been a leader in demanding that taxpayers fund its religiously discriminatory hiring practices (and, like many of the HCSMs, it requires all employees to sign a Christian statement of faith). 

If the new evangelicals were to be part of a successful coalition to persuade Congress to pass, for example, meaningful legislation on gun control, immigration reform, or climate change, that would certainly be a positive development for evangelical political advocacy. But what sort of cracks would then develop? Will evangelicals, for example, support an immigration reform package that includes equal treatment for gays and lesbians? Perhaps more important than whether they will work with Democrats is whether they would be able to break the conservative movement’s unyielding grip on the Republican Party. 

Pally’s essay is framed around the thesis that these evangelicals have “left the right.” But left it for what? What she describes is really another vision of conservatism: church-based charity in lieu of a government safety net; exemptions from government regulation for religious groups; federal funding of religious activities; and persistent sexual puritanism. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say they’ve left the radical right and are in the process of creating a new religious right, stripped of harsh rhetoric but still undergirded by conservative ideology. Which is a movement worth chronicling, but not, as Pally intimates, as the new saviors of civility in our religiously-inflected politics.

*Correction: In an earlier version of this article David Sessions was identified as an evangelical, which he is not. RD regrets the error.