ST. PAUL—Less than two hours after expected Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her husband announced that their unmarried 17-year-old daughter is pregnant, evangelical leaders told U.S. News that they don't believe the revelation will harm the GOP ticket within the conservative faith community.
"I don't think it [hurts] at all," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who hailed Palin's nomination.
The media's breathless reaction is proof that "you just don't get it," Land said during a U.S. News lunch roundtable here that also included Jim Wallis, president and executive director of Sojourners; Randy Brinson, founder of Redeem the Vote; and Chuck Donovan, executive vice president for the Family Research Council.
"We need to take the Juno option," Wallis said, referring to last year's popular movie about a pregnant teenager who gives her baby up for adoption. Said Donovan: "It doesn't matter if it's a conservative, liberal, or an apolitical family—these things happen."
Donovan and Land both referred to the national efforts by evangelicals to encourage women and girls to do what Bristol Palin, now five months pregnant, has done and keep the child. "Pro-life people don't see a baby as a punishment," Land said.
Only Brinson suggested that there will be some in the evangelical community who will be disappointed by the news about Palin's daughter, even though, he said, "Sarah Palin is the one running for office."
Though the pregnancy news and that of her husband's 1986 drunken driving arrest distracted from Palin's continued roll-out today, her nomination has energized the Republican's Christian conservative base, and in particular women, Land said. "It has awakened the sisterhood," he said.
But on other issues, the evangelical community's continuing evolution—and its growing pains—were evident during the 1 ½ hour roundtable. With Wallis on the left end of the evangelical spectrum, Land and Donovan on the right, and Brinson somewhere in the middle, the men debated everything from the Democrats' abortion platform language (a step forward, said Wallis; a move to the left said Donovan) to whether Democratic nominee Barack Obama can make inroads with their communities.
Brinson suggested that the Republican three-legged coalition of economic, security, and social conservatives "doesn't exist anymore," and what has emerged is something far more complex.
"Christians are not single-issue voters," said Wallis, who was among those who worked with Democrats to add to their party's platform language that supports efforts to reduce abortion while still endorsing its legal availability. Evangelicals, particularly younger ones, have expanded their political agendas beyond abortion and same-sex marriage to issues including worldwide poverty, war, and climate change. And Obama is drawing interest from a number of young evangelical voters, Brinson said, as well as those who have been pressed by the troubled economy, the mortgage crisis, gas prices, and education concerns.
Wallis and Brinson suggested that the erosion in evangelical support for Republicans, crucial to President George Bush's 2004 win, was evident in the 2006 elections and could continue this presidential year. "A lot of evangelicals are embarrassed they voted for Bush," Wallis said.
Responded Land: "More are not."
When asked if there's anything he likes about Obama, Land said, "I like the fact that he's an African American. I like the fact that he's married to his first wife. I like the fact that he's comfortable talking about his faith."
Wallis suggested that Obama's candidacy should make happy those who value family—he has a "real family, a real marriage," one in which "kids count."
Land said that Obama is not the lighting rod that Hillary Clinton would have been, and predicted that if former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had won the GOP nomination, half of the evangelicals that went to the polls would have picked Obama.