While it initially began in the early 1980’s, for the past several years there has been an increasing concern in America that the term evangelical has become synonymous with being a Republican. I’ve tried to understand why some people have formed this impression. I’ve listened to their worries and given serious thought to how they could have developed this misperception. I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason many people believe that being a conservative Christian means marching in lockstep with the GOP is that many conservative Christians march in lockstep with the GOP.
Mark Byron has found a particularly egregious example of this mindset. In a recent interview on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Pat Robertson, the voice of evangelicalism, was asked to represent our views on the next presidential election:
Stephanopoulos: If the party chooses a moderate like John McCain or Rudy Giuliani, do you think religious conservatives will split off and form a third-party movement?”
Robertson: “I don’t think so. Rudy’s a very good friend of mine, and he did a super job running the City of New York. And I think he’d make a good president. I like him a lot. Although he doesn’t share all of my particular points of view on social issues, he’s a very dedicated Catholic. And he’s a great guy. McCain, I’d vote against under any circumstance”
While I wish we could simple dismiss this as another of Rev. Robertson’s pearls of wisdom, some people actually believe that he’s a serious representative of evangelical politics. Take, for instance, Jon Avlon, a columnist for the New York Sun and blogger at Real Clear Politics, who writes:
This character endorsement is an important green light to a possible presidential run that some social-conservative political operatives were overconfidently whispering was dead on arrival�. Rev. Robertson’s warm comments about Mr. Giuliani this Sunday send a powerful message to millions of religious conservatives not to judge their party’s early front-runner on a narrow litmus test, but to instead look at the full record to gain a picture of the president he might make.
Mr. Avlon is mistaken. The powerful message being sent to religious conservatives is not that we should reconsider a Giuliani candidacy but that we really have to do more to get the message out that Pat Robertson does not speak for us. Personally, I respect the leadership abilities of Mr. Giuliani and am impressed by the way that he helped transform New York City from a crime-ridden metropolis into a safe, livable city. But as an evangelical whose political views are derived from the Bible rather than from a party platform, I could no more support the candidacy of Giuliani than I could have for John Kerry.
As Dr. Byron wryly notes, “Is McCain more liberal than Giuliani? Not last I checked. If anything, he’s more conservative on the moral issues that Robertson supposedly champions. However, McCain’s less of a loyal Republican, willing to buck the party leadership. You can be a libertine, but as long as you’re a loyal Republican, Rev-run Pat’s got your back.”
Unfortunately, I don’t think the good reverend will be the only conservative Christian to support Giuliani. Robertson may be speaking for a broader constituency but that does not mean that others will not come to the same conclusion on their own. Too many evangelicals have taken the position that supporting an electable Republican candidate is the default political posture for a “good conservative Christian.”
Robertson, however, is not the only one who appears to be confused about the differences between being an evangelical and being a Republican. When speaking on political issues, many prominent evangelical leaders are sounding more like Rush Limbaugh than Francis Schaeffer. Too often there appears to be little Biblical warrant for the positions that are taken. Issues that concern the protection of the poor or the defense of the innocent are obvious causes that evangelicals should champion. But is the limiting of Congressional filibusters or partisan budget-reform proposals matters for which there is a specific “conservative Christian” position? Some evangelicals certainly give that impression.
The Democratic Party has certainly made it easy for evangelicals to embrace the GOP. Since the end of the Carter presidency, the Democrats have shown a disdain for any religious people who do not share their acceptance of abortion, sexual libertinism, and nanny statism. Former Democratic Senator Zell Miller, for example, was treated as a pariah by his own party for failing to adopt to the post-1973 definition of what it means to be a Democrat.
After being ostracized by the Democrats it is not surprising that many evangelicals would seek shelter with the Republican Party. To their credit, the Republicans have been more open and accepting of the agenda of social conservatives. Whether it’s a true conversion or merely due to political expediency, the Republican Party has made room under the Big Tent for conservative evangelicals. But that does not mean that our political visions are in complete alignment. I believe the model that evangelicals should use when aligning with Republicans should be similar to the way we work together on social issues with our Catholic brothers and sisters.
Over the past twenty-five years, Evangelicals and Catholics have learned to set aside our theological differences in order to become “co-belligerents” in a shared struggle to prevent secularism from becoming the dominant religion. The disagreements between our camps, however, are deep-rooted and likely to remain — at least on this side of eternity – irresolvable. My being a catholic Evangelical does not mean that I will ever become an evangelical Catholic. The two groups may share similarities but our differences are profound.
This same is true of my relationship with the Republican Party. I share a common cause with the GOP on most moral issues (i.e., abortion, same-sex marriage), on several foreign policy matters (e.g., the war on terrorism), and on some economic matters (welfare reform, for example). But because my neocalvinist views on policy are rooted in the Bible and Reformed theology, they will often differ, sometimes profoundly, from the standard party line. As a fellow traveler of the GOP, I find myself walking side by side with the party toward the same goals. But at other times our paths will diverge and I must follow where my conscience as a Christian conservative leads me. After all, to stand with Christ means that I can’t always stand with the Republican Party.