You are absolutely right, Anthony. Contrary to what many secularists claim–and many Christians believe–we evangelicals are not all that politically involved. Sure, like most Americans we talk a lot about politics, just like we talk a lot about sports and religion. But the claim that we are involved in actual political activities—lobbying, organizing, campaigning, etc.—would be well nigh impossible to support with actual evidence.
I say this not only as a self-professed (and self-critical) member of the “religious right” but as one who has often had a direct observation post on the political battlefield. I have almost no interest in politics. I know that may surprise some people who think I’m some sort of political junkie, but on my list of things that actually interest me, politics is down there with urban gardening and complexity theory—interesting topics that I don’t really want to think about too much. But because of one of my primary interest—defending the dignity of human beings—God has seen fit to stick me in situations and places where politics dominates. So be it. If nothing else, it’s certainly been illuminating. From my vantage point it is easy to see that the commitment—much less the influence—of evangelical in politics is wildly overstated.
For example, a few years ago Family Research Council (FRC)—the premier lobbying organization of the Christian right in Washington, D.C.—attempted to collect signatures on an online petition asking President Bush to approve new Title X regulations ensuring that no taxpayer money goes to subsidize the abortion facilities of groups like Planned Parenthood.
Over a million emails were sent by FRC and various other groups asking evangelicals and other Christians to do nothing more than add their name to an online petition. This is about as minor a level of commitment or involvement as it gets, yet less than three percent of the people contacted did so. More evangelicals voted for the fifth place contestant on last year’s American Idol than have petitioned to defund abortion mills.
This is the typical reaction at the grassroots level to almost every political initiative in the “religious right.” Lot’s of talk; little to no action.
Despite the fact that many of it’s staff and constituents are Catholic, FRC is considered one of the major players in the world of conservative evangelical politics. And yet that organization’s ability to have any influence or impact in the political realm is limited by the lack of grassroots commitment. Though FRC and similar groups attempt to rally the troops, they are unable to lead the army of politically engaged evangelicals because such a group is all but nonexistent.
Consider that for more than two decades the number one issue on the agenda of the evangelical wing of the religious right has been abortion.
The bitter irony is that this is perceived as the “number one” political issue for evangelicals when it really isn’t one of our top priorities. If evangelicals–and Christians in general–truly cared about this issue, abortion on demand would not be the law of the land.
Imagine if every Christian in America vowed not to cast a vote for any candidate of any party for any office if they supported or condoned the killing of the unborn. Imagine if every pastor in America had the courage to stand in the pulpit and deliver the Gospel-centric message that God abhors this slaughtering of the innocent and that for the church to tolerate this sin is a fecal-colored stain on the garment of Christ’s bride.
But it will never happen because the evangelical church isn’t committed as the church to rectifying this grave injustice. We never have been.
In a 1971 resolution on abortion, the Southern Baptist Convention resolved that “society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life.” The largest evangelical denomination in America had a peculiar definition of “sanctity of human life”, however, for the very next sentence called upon Southern Baptists to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion” under such conditions as “fetal deformity” and damage to the “emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Three years later–and two years after Roe codified this position–the SBC reaffirmed the resolution. It wasn’t until 1980 that the SBC finally condemned abortion as a grave evil, a position that has always been maintained by the Catholic Church.
Forty years later, we evangelicals still haven’t caught up on issues of the sanctity of life. Come to the annual March for Life held in Washington, D.C. every January and you’ll find fifty Catholics for every evangelical. For Catholics it is a moral, spiritual, and political issue. For evangelicals it nothing more than an emotional issue that we aren’t really dedicated to doing much about. I suspect that there were more evangelicals that participated in the recent Tea Party protests than have every participated in the March for Life. (And speaking of the Tea Party movement, could any evangelical group or groups ever muster that level of support about anything.)
Rather than assuming that evangelicals are a large, powerful, committed political bloc that, for some inexplicable reason, is completely ineffective, the more realistic conclusion is that politically engaged evangelicals are like a herd of unicorns: powerful and abundant in the imagination while not actually existing in the real world.