EVANGELICAL VOTERS DON'T PRACTICE WHAT THEY PREACH
by Ron Sider
Evangelical political activists are all over the media these days: the cover story of TIME, front – page stories in national newspapers, top national TV shows. White evangelicals' overwhelmingly pro-Bush vote was a key in reelecting the president, and pushing the issue of moral values to the center of public debate.
However, before evangelical political activists develop grandiose plans to transform America, or liberals succumb to fears of some new Dark Age, we need to ponder some painful facts.
In spite of a strong evangelical commitment to strengthening moral values in American society, evangelicals are often simply not practicing what they preach. In THE SCANDAL OF THE EVANGELICAL CONSCIENCE, I cite poll after poll showing, as one evangelical leader noted, "that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered and sexually immoral as the world in general."
Evangelical political activists talk a lot about protecting and restoring marriage (and I agree). But numerous polls show that evangelicals and born-again Christians (a somewhat broader category) divorce at the same rate as, or slightly more often than, other Americans. And, according to pollster George Barna, 90% of all born-again folk who are divorced did so AFTER they accepted Christ!
Evangelical political activists promote abstinence programs to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancy (and I agree), but the sexual behavior of evangelical youth is not a lot different from the rest of the society. In the last ten years, several million of the most devout American evangelical youth have signed the "True Love Waits" pledge to abstain from sexual activity until marriage, but a massive recent study found that 88% had broken their promise.
Evangelicals have enthusiastically endorsed President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative to allow faith-based organizations equal access to government funds to run social programs that empower the needy (and I agree). But year after year for more than 30 years evangelical giving to their churches to fund and run these faith-based social programs has dropped, even as their annual incomes have grown larger and larger. Only six percent of born-again Christians give the traditional tithe (10%). The average for evangelicals is a mere two-fifths of a tithe.
And when it comes to racism, Lord have mercy. In a Gallup poll survey on how people respond to having a black neighbor, evangelicals were more racist than everybody else.
As a card-carrying evangelical, these stats make me weep. They also make me urge repentance and humility at this moment of alleged political clout. The first thing we must do is put our own house in order. It is a farce for evangelical leaders to ask Washington to legislate what we cannot persuade our own church members to live. We need to embrace the biblical teaching: "Be doers of the word and not hearers only." Unless we undertake a massive discipling effort to recover biblical lifestyles and practices, our political activity will be both ineffective and hypocritical.
Evangelicals must also rethink the priorities for their political engagement. There is too much truth to the charge that we have been pro-life only from conception to birth. The sanctity of human life also pertains to people dying from hunger, AIDS, tobacco smoke, and capital punishment.
The tragedy is that many evangelicals have listened more to clever political operators rather than to the Bible we claim to embrace when defining the public policies that shape our votes. Presumably a Christian political agenda ought to be decisively shaped by what the Bible says God cares about. If the hundreds of biblical verses about the poor mean anything, God cares about the poor and oppressed as well as the sanctity of human life. God cares about racial justice and creation care as well as the family. If evangelical political activists want to embrace a biblically balanced agenda, they will have to care about a lot more than abortion and family.
The good news is that there is some indication that movement in that direction has begun. In mid January, over one hundred evangelical leaders wrote to President Bush urging him to do more to empower poor people in his second term. Last October, the National Association of Evangelicals (the largest evangelical network in the U.S., representing 30 million evangelicals) adopted a new document as its official framework for its political engagement. "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility" warns against uncritical patriotism, condemns one-issue politics and insists that "faithful evangelical civic engagement must champion a biblically balanced agenda": defined in this document not only as promoting religious freedom, strengthening the family and protecting the sanctity of human life, but also as seeking justice for the poor, protecting human rights, seeking peace and caring for creation.
The Bliss Institute at the University of Akron has discovered that less than half of all evangelicals (48%) are what might be labeled the "Religious Right." More than half of all evangelicals (52%) are centrists and progressives. More than half of all evangelicals want the government to spend more to fight poverty even if that means more taxes on the wealthy (55%) and favor environmental regulations even if that costs jobs (52%).
White evangelicals do represent 26% of the American population and they do have substantial political influence today. But given our frequently one-sided political agenda in the past and our scandalous failure to practice what we preach, this is no time for triumphalism. What we need is honest admission of failure, humility, a readiness to listen carefully to those with whom we disagree, and a new resolve to let the Bible, not the Republican (or Democratic) Party, determine our political agenda.
Ronald J. Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action, author of the just published SCANDAL OF THE EVANGELICAL CONSCIENCE and co-editor of TOWARD AN EVANGELICAL POLITICAL POLICY [both from Baker, 2005].