Senator Obama has a unique shot at doing something unheard of, at least in the last 30 years: corner a sizable chunk of the evangelical vote. Now that he is being attacked (re his perfectly true, if poorly phrased remark on "bitter" voters) I want to mention the fact that if the Democratic Party throws away his candidacy on such nonsense (or lets the Clintons and Republicans trash it) the Democrats will have wasted a historic opportunity. Why? Because Obama -- as with no Democrat in recent years -- is liked by not just many Republicans, but especially by a growing number of evangelicals.
Obama speaks the authentic language of ethical and spiritual leadership. (Here's a link to a historic and well received talk Obama gave to a group of evangelicals and here's the link to the transcript and/or audio.) Many evangelicals are tired and ashamed of Bush. So put Obama's spiritual eloquence, sincere personal Christian faith and ethical approach to politics together with the evangelical's disappointment with Bush and their anger about the war in Iraq, and Obama has a once-in-a-lifetime chance with a huge group of voters who haven't ever considered voting for a Democrat. I know because they are telling me. I know because I was one.
As someone who was in on the start of the Religious Right in the 1970s and who left the movement and abandoned my right-wing childhood conditioning, I bring good news to the Democratic Party: the Evangelical right is a movement made up of the walking dead. It still seems formidable. It's over.
Progressives have been appalled by what has amounted to a 30-year coup attempt by the Evangelicals to impose a soft theocracy on the United States. Progressives look at this threat as a constant fact of life that they will be battling in the 2008 elections. They won't.
How do I know? Because since the publication of my memoir (CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back) a very unexpected thing has happened to me.
I expected a torrent of abusive email. To be sure I got my share of nasty comments on various blogs and websites and a few harebrained, "strike him Lord" emails, but what did NOT happen has amazed me. I have gotten less than a dozen nasty emails and over a thousand emails from former and current Evangelicals, almost all of which are glowingly positive. What is going on?
In the mid eighties I left a resolute and determined self-confident movement full of people with the fiery conviction of their superior holiness vis-a-vis the rest of America. But the letters that have poured in since Crazy For God was published have not been denunciations of my "heresy." What I've been reading are an outpouring of people's stories of getting out and/or doubts about the evangelical enterprise. The Evangelicals are still around, but they have lost their fire.
What the stories people are writing to me have in common is this: post-Evangelical and post-right wing disillusionment runs through them all. I have letters from former leading pastors of huge churches, from men and women still busy working in "full-time Christian ministry" (and trusting me not to blow their cover!) emails from several leading evangelical authors whose books have sold literally millions of copies and from hundreds of ordinary people raised and/or having spent lifetimes within the evangelical subculture who now want out. Some have already left. Some are living a bitter existence and remaining in the movement while doubting -- and in many cases abhorring -- what they once believed. Those folks admit their hearts aren't in it and they remain, as one pastor wrote me: "because I frankly can't figure another way to support my wife and four children."
Here are just a few excerpts from the letters representative of hundreds more:
I make my living as a composer and I am also a Christian... I really appreciate your honesty in speaking the truth in love and with a justified anger. I feel the same way. I have been beat up over the years. I am an artist who happens to love Christ but at the same time has grown to hate the Church...
I have yelled YES so loud I know neighbors had to hear me when I could see you were describing the past 30 years of the Church life in America like I was also seeing it...
We evangelicals are grossly ignorant of our heritage between the life of the apostles and the start of Protestantism (if we even go back that far!)... No church body has cornered the market on truth, arrogance, doctrinal purity, or love for their fellow man, of this I'm certain. I'd love to see a group of [new] leaders rise up to champion this unity...
I'm at about page 300 in 'Crazy.' You are very direct about your opinions on Dobson, Falwell and Robertson... I mean, it's one thing to write thinly veiled stories depicting some of these things, but this couldn't be any more open. I love it by the way. Thank God for free speech. I was attending Regent [Pat Robertson's College] on 9/11 and on 9/12 Falwell had already issued a statement to the media saying that the attack was God's punishment due to the homosexuals. Robertson came out and supported him and within forty-eight hours retracted that same statement trying to create distance between himself and Falwell.... There are a lot of similarities in our stories, but mine breaks off into a whole other sordid area of pain and sorrow.
I too, have a big disconnect from the faith of my childhood. I often feel like I have committed full and final apostasy and am somehow marking time until my eternal damnation. Thanks for 'telling it like it is' about the tellevangelists. My words for James Dobson (before I read your book) was that he is a 'whiny little weasel.' Don't get me started on Benny Hinn and Rod Parsley... I enjoyed you allowing me to take a peek at it and share in your journey. Here's hoping that I too can 'get my sh*t together...'
I spent nearly 20 years of my adult life as an Evangelical in various new-Pentecostal groups... Now, the longer I'm out (and reading again) the more sane (I think) I'm getting! Thanks for 'being the voice' for so many of us! I'd love to buy you coffee sometime!
We are not to be silenced....Would you consider taking your message further? I have been requesting a televised roundtable discussion from the Obama campaign. If we are who we have been waiting for, then let's begin!
[Your] book also reminds me that it's one of the recurring tragedies of US history that, from time to time, various movements of self-righteous, ideology-driven Christians decide it's time to try to impose their ideas on society at large. [You] live with the painful memory of having been one of the key figures helping to create one of the constituencies that did the most to put George Bush in the White House....
A little over a year ago, I realized I didn't know what I believed as far my faith was concerned, and that maybe being in ministry wasn't the place for me. It's really refreshing, challenging (and perhaps a bit depressing) to read 'Crazy For God,' to hear you saying a lot of the things I've felt.
For those who were not raised in the Evangelical ghetto many of my readers will have no idea how are earthshaking all this is to me. It's as if American Jews -- en masse -- declared that they were going to vote for candidates opposed to the existence of the State of Israel, or for Roman Catholics to say they'll be voting for some candidate calling for the immediate arrest of the Pope.
Why did this happen? A very brief synopsis of recent Evangelical history is in order.
In the 1950s to 1960s Evangelicals bought into the Billy Graham evangelistic simplistic Jesus-saves "method" and began to lose their denominational distinctives. They did this because the "Graham method" worked. It worked because America had become a consumerist society and Graham's easy Jesus-lite was perfect for folks buying religion just like they bought the rest of the American "good life."
Evangelicalism became about the "born-again" experience, that silver bullet that would solve all your problems at a stroke, another product to make life better without all that dreary liturgical struggle of the Puritanical past.
The Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, etc., etc., became less Methodists and Baptists and so forth than they were born-again, Graham-style generic Evangelicals. Then the Evangelicals, having lost their denominational and historical roots became politicized by my late father, myself, Falwell, Dobson and others. Graham offered them born-again salvation, we offered them born-again politics.
Our politics became the politics of hate and exclusion, and we Evangelicals became the hit men for the Republican Party. But individual evangelicals wanted to find more meaning in their faith. So they formed huge "mega-churches" to imitate the secular market-driven consumerist culture around them. This Wal-Mart faith wasn't enough and people began to either drop out or move on, back to more traditional less consumer orientated faith and/or no politics at all. Many just left altogether and are still leaving.
The result is that there are millions of been-there-done-that former Evangelicals either looking to separate politics from faith or looking for new moral leadership and/or wanting out altogether. Either way the movement as a mass movement is over. No one calls the shots any more. The day of the Billy Graham experience is past. The televangelists have also lost their luster and have sunk under the weight of their own venal corruption. And the super churches are losing their allure, just like all the other box stores in our consumer culture.
I received a email from a senior editor at the leading Evangelical Christian magazine telling me of his intention to vote for Obama. He mentioned that plenty of other Evangelicals he knows feel the same. Obama inspires them. I've had similar emails from hundreds of other Evangelicals responding to my articles on why I am voting for Obama and supporting him.
The impact of the disillusionment and/or abandoning of the theological and cultural certainties that once formed the backbone of the Religious Right of the 1970s is going to change everything in American politics. The big surprise is not only how many people have read my Crazy For God and written to say that they share my background (and also share my leaving that background) but the response of so many current and powerful evangelicals who have told me that they like my book because it's "time to shake things up." The biggest surprise of all is the growing depth of support for Obama.
Why? Because lots of people have grown up and/or changed their minds. Many others are just tired of the empire-building gross money-grubbing hypocrisy. Still others have just seen to many stupid predictions -- from the return of Christ that was supposed to happen for sure in the 1970s, then 80s etc. to the collapse of "godless America" -- not come true. Bluntly the Evangelicals are running out of BS. And George Bush has finished them off. They feel the shame of having been his facilitator.
Bush was the Evangelical's man. And except for the most unenlightened, evangelicals now know they chose wrong.
The beneficiary of this move to sanity is going to be Senator Obama. For reasons I have discussed elsewhere here and here, Obama transcends easy categories and definition. His prophetic and inspirational edge also makes evangelical types comfortable with him in a way they aren't with Senator Clinton or McCain.
I was at a concert in Boston recently and the head of the English department at one of the big evangelical colleges in the Boston area came up to me and asked me who I was voting for. When I told him it was Obama he leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. The fact that Obama is a Democrat, a progressive and a black man would have made this response the truly impossible 20 years ago. These days I wasn't surprised.