Since the presidential election of 2004, when the Christian Right was widely credited for handing George W. Bush a narrow victory, moderate and liberal religious leaders have been fussing about the “God-Gap” that gives the religious right a leg up on the secular left. Why can’t the Christian Left energize liberal politics? Why haven’t more progressive expressions of evangelicalism taken root in America?
George Lakoff teaches progressive politicians to learn the language of moral values so they can appeal to religious voters.
Since the 2004 election, a cadre of young, post-partisan evangelicals has been challenging the marriage of evangelical theology and small-government conservatism that passes for mainstream Christian piety in America. Christians should stand in solidarity with the poor, the new evangelicals say, they should embrace “creation care” and work for racial reconciliation.
Dr. Lydia Bean, a former Baylor sociology professor who is now organizing Black and Latino evangelicals in Texas, sympathizes with this quest to close the God-Gap, but her intense study of evangelicalism in the United States and Canada makes her wary. Her new book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada (Princeton University Press) explains why American evangelicals became so closely aligned with the Republican Party.
“Partisanship and political attitudes are anchored in social group memberships and networks,” Bean says.
When Christian Right frames resonate, it is because they are woven into everyday religious practice, reinforcing a powerful connection between religious identity and partisanship.
if other movements want to challenge the Christian Right for their own constituency, it will not be enough to engage in top-down messaging about faith and values. New moral issues will only take on a sacred quality if they become part of the lived religion of rank-and-file evangelicals, who are embedded in local congregations.
Liberals may be doing a poor job of translating their message into the language of faith and moral values, but that isn’t the real problem. Until we can create new forms of religious community in which solidarity with the poor, creation care and racial reconciliation become sacred through integration into the everyday community life of real congregations, we can’t compete with the Christian Right.
Dr. Bean returns again and again to a simple affirmation: the close association between religious piety and political partisanship is a carefully cultivated phenomenon that doesn’t flow from the core tenets of evangelical theology.
When she compared evangelical congregations in the United States and Canada, Bean discovered a stark contrast. Let’s begin south of the border. (more…)