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Ever since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, evangelicals have been a powerful political force. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority organization were credited in part with Reagan's election, having registered millions of evangelicals to vote. Their influence would only grow over the next 25 years: Evangelicals were instrumental in Reagan's reelection, the Republican Revolution of 1994, and both of George W. Bush's victories. But on Nov. 6, 2012. their reign came to an end.
"I think this [election] was an evangelical disaster," Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told NPR. He's right, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
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The late Falwell's Liberty University gave former Gov. Mitt Romney its keynote spot at its 2012 commencement and backed off previous language calling Mormonism a "cult." Billy Graham uncharacteristically threw his support behind the Republican candidate, and his evangelistic association bought full-page newspaper ads all but endorsing Romney. Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition spent tens of millions in battleground states to get out the religious vote.
As a result, 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for Romney on Tuesday. That's the same percentage that Bush received in 2004, and more than Sen. John McCain received in 2008. The evangelical vote was 27 percent of the overall electorate -- the highest it's ever been for an election.
Their support wasn't enough. Not only did President Obama win soundly, but four states voted to allow same-sex marriage.
Mohler blamed the loss on a "seismic moral shift in culture." Americans' values are indeed changing, but more seems to be at work here.
First, the size of the evangelicals' base is a limitation. While white evangelicals comprised a quarter of the electorate, other religious groups that lean Democratic have grown substantially. Hispanic-American Catholics, African-American Protestants, and Jewish-Americans voted Democratic in overwhelming numbers. Additionally, the "nones" -- those who claim no religious affiliation -- are now the fastest growing "religious" group, comprising one-fifth of the population and a third of adults under 30. Seven out of 10 "nones" voted for Obama.
Second, evangelicals' influence is waning. Conservative Christian ideas are failing to shape the broader culture. More than 3,500 churches close their doors every year, and while Americans are still overwhelmingly spiritual, the institutional church no longer holds the sway over their lives it once did. The sweeping impact of globalization and the digital age has marginalized the church and its leaders.
Conservative Christian leaders often blame America's so-called secularization, but as Peter Berger of Boston University argues, "Modernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily pluralizing. Modernity is characterized by an increasing plurality, within the same society, of different beliefs, values, and worldviews." Evangelicals once presided like chairmen in America's political boardroom, but they must now sit down with others at a common table to dialogue and search for common ground.
Third, evangelical leadership is wanting. A quarter-century ago, Christian mobilization efforts were rising, Christian advocacy groups were sprouting, and charismatic Christian leaders were popping up in every corner of the country. This is no longer the case.
Politically influential pastors like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have died, James Dobson retired, and Pat Robertson has been relegated to the fringes of his own community. By any reckoning, few charismatic figures are able or willing to fill these voids.
The leadership vacuum became painfully obvious during the Republican primaries, when 150 "high-powered" evangelical leaders, including Tony Perkins and Gary Bauer, met behind closed doors in Texas to determine which candidate should receive their endorsement. They chose Rick Santorum, but in the South Carolina primaries a week later, Newt Gingrich and Romney split two-thirds of the state's evangelical vote.
Additionally, organizations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition are either defunct or defunded, while Focus on the Family has made clear its intention to move in a less political direction. The number and influence of evangelical organizations shaping the public square is greatly diminished.
These converging trends create a perfect storm for evangelicals and radically transform the American public square. As Shaun Casey, professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, says, "The understanding that the evangelical vote is a kingmaking vote, I think, is now dead."
But death often creates an opportunity for new life. As I survey the rising generation of Christians in America, I see many who recognize the ways in which the thirst for power has corrupted the faith. They're eschewing partisan politics as a way to coerce and control the country, and they are finding ways to work with others they may disagree with. They are looking for new ways to live their faith in our rapidly changing world, and they give me hope that American Christians may be on the cusp of a healthier engagement with the public square.
American morality is certainly changing, but this in itself doesn't account for the waning influence of evangelicals. To the extent that the faithful continue to blame their diminished influence on a shift in morality alone, they will continue their descent into irrelevance. If, however, they recognize the opportunity before them to reform their strategy and tactics, this so-called evangelical disaster might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
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