Nearer My God To Thee
Their distinctive faith aside, evangelicals are acting more and more like the rest of us
Voters like the Clausens will be a prime target for the Bush campaign in the fall. According to Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, some 4 million white evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals sat out the 2000 presidential election. Rove and the Christian Coalition are doing all they can to make sure that doesn't happen again. But getting out the evangelical vote this year is no guarantee of Republican success. For one thing, evangelicals do not always go for the straight party platform. Take gay marriage. While evangelicals are overwhelmingly opposed to same-sex unions (83 percent, compared with 61 percent of the total population), only 41 percent--less than a majority--favor amending the Constitution to ban them. And 23 percent of white evangelicals identified themselves as Democrats or leaning Democratic in the U.S. News /PBS survey; 71 percent of that group plan to vote for Kerry.
Then there are the "freestyle evangelicals," swing voters who account for as much as 30 or 40 percent of the white evangelical vote. They tend to be critical of Bush administration policies toward the poor, the environment, and some human-rights issues, which they see as lacking proper Christian compassion.
Evangelical freestylers helped pave the way for Jimmy Carter's victory in 1976, and some 55 percent of them voted for Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996. While they rejected what they perceived as the moral decrepitude of the Clinton administration and voted for Bush by a 10-point margin in 2000, that wasn't necessarily a permanent shift.
"The Lord's will." Even so, George Bush's apparent embrace of religious values is powerfully attractive to most evangelicals. In 2000, he captured 71 percent of the white-evangelical vote. This year, his statements on the God-driven nature of his Iraq policy--"God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom," he said in the State of the Union speech in January--are likely to solidify his standing among evangelical Republicans. Even at the outset of the invasion of Iraq, his professed thoughts turned to spiritual matters, according to Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack: "I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will . . . I'm surely not going to justify war based on God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case, I pray that I'll be as good a messenger of his will as possible."
Talk like that makes evangelical voters like the Clausens swoon. "We pray regularly for President Bush," says Sharon. "That's something we're committed to doing. And right now, I think it's a huge help. Maybe that's what God wants--for us to be prayer warriors."
The fact that evangelicals seem ascendant in Washington surely adds to Bush's luster. More than two thirds of evangelicals said they believe they have at least some influence on the Bush administration. And 57 percent of the general population agreed with them. "There's no question that evangelicals have had a significant impact on the Bush administration," says Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe. The president's decision to restrict stem cell research, he says, "clearly was an appeal to the evangelical community." One of Rove's deputies serves as chief liaison to religious groups, meeting at least once a week with evangelical activists. "We have a president who basically speaks for us," says Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition. "He's said he's a born-again Christian, and we trust he's in the public arena doing what he--and we--think is right."