Imagine the United States as a giant political felt board. Instead of monochromatic gray, picture a patchwork of contrasting reds and blues—primary colors with little room or patience for purple. This is the divided America that Washington, D.C. imagines, the talk-show circuit promotes and politicians fight for. These actors—Red and Blue, Republicans and Democrats—are the new characters of our real-life felt-board storyscapes. So what happens when we combine faith with politics? Remarkable players emerge, ready to engage the story.
This story originally ran in issue 23 of RELEVANT (Nov/Dec 2006).
Enter Mara Vanderslice and Jim Banks, two young activists representing a whole new generation of evangelicals learning what it means to be both political and prophetic in America today.
FLASHBACK: PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION 2004
BOSTON, MA—A twentysomething evangelical takes the pulpit. Young and articulate, she explains to the church crowd what’s at stake if her candidate doesn’t win. While watching evangelicals engage in politics is common—particularly if they’re Republican—this story involves a twist. Mara Vanderslice is a card-carrying Democrat, both deeply religious and as blue-state as they come.
Crackles of applause break out in the room. It’s the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Religious progressives from around the country have come to this special event to show their support for a pro-choice presidential candidate who’s also opposed to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Mara Vanderslice is there to introduce a speaker who, later in the program, will introduce her boss: presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry.
In the lead-up to the election, Kerry’s campaign team hired Vanderslice as its national religious outreach coordinator, hoping a strategy including religious voters would help take him all the way to the White House.
Vanderslice’s mission was simple, broad and ambitious: rock the religious vote in America, in all of its denominational diversity and political complexity. In order for this to happen, she needed to accomplish three things. She would attempt to woo the evangelical vote away from George W. Bush, reach out to moderate Catholics and Mainline Protestants, and maintain the decades-strong relationship between historically black churches and the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile and elsewhere, another political activist—also twentysomething, also evangelical—works tirelessly on a similar political strategy, but for opposite political ends.
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO—Barely out of college, Jim Banks of Focus on the Family Action addresses 1,000 women at a church in Dothan, Ala. His two-pronged message rings loud and clear. Register to vote. When you do, cast your ballot for President George W. Bush.
Nearly a year before the election, then senior White House political strategist Karl Rove wagered that the key to unlocking an electoral victory for Bush in 2004 would be found sitting in the pews of evangelical churches across America. By focusing on bread-and-butter issues like gay marriage and abortion, and working alongside groups like Focus on the Family to get the message out, he would drive evangelical voters to the polls.
To this end, Jim Banks stood strong, one example among dozens of other young, conservative evangelical activists striving to fulfill Rove’s strategic vision. Having been president of the College Republicans at Indiana University, he graduated a couple of years before the 2004 presidential election with strong conservative credentials.
After graduating, Banks followed his girlfriend (now his wife) to Colorado Springs, where she immediately became the Federal lobbyist for Focus on the Family Action, the political arm of James Dobson’s evangelical mega-empire. He quickly found employment as one of its national grassroots coordinators, often traveling three weeks per month leading up to the presidential election, working with evangelical churches in key battleground states to turn out the evangelical vote.
With 22 percent of American voters saying “Moral Values” was the final factor determining their presidential choice—80 percent voting for Bush—the 2004 presidential election proved the connection between religion and politics still runs deep in this country. Indeed, 2004 was rightly dubbed “The Year of the Values Voter.”
Additionally, evangelicals voted 27 million strong during the 2004 presidential election, 78 percent for President Bush. At the time, many were in favor of Operation Iraqi Freedom, strongly endorsed marriage amendments introduced as public referendums in dozens of battleground states across the country, and continued to support pro-life candidates without any hesitation. For the most part, these same voters did not perceive the environment or poverty as major issues.
AMERICA IN 2006
Just two years later, the political winds were changing. Some religious voters are second-guessing their political commitments. In particular, twentysomething evangelicals are tuning in to issues related to social justice, fighting poverty and protecting the environment. And it’s starting to affect how they think about politics.
With the stakes higher than ever, Republicans and Democrats alike are doing the political math. In both camps, one realization has crystallized: Their candidates need our support. And win or lose, they’re fighting for our votes in unpredicted ways.
Since 2004 both Mara Vanderslice and Jim Banks have founded political consulting firms aimed at helping their respective partisan clients form new strategies to attract religious voters.
Currently Vanderslice’s group, Common Good Strategies, is working on the ground in four key battleground states, including Senate races in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Believing in the untapped potential of a new wave of evangelical activism, Vanderslice cites U2’s frontman Bono: “He talks about the American Church as if it’s a sleeping giant, one that—if it wakes up, if it starts caring about deeper issues—will literally change the landscape of the whole country, and therefore, the world.
“Not on a partisan level at all—but on a broader moral level—I don’t understand how you can look at the world and not see the growing gap between richest of the rich and poorest of the poor as one of the greatest moral questions of our time,” she adds.
Echoing this sentiment, former six-term Congressman Jim Slattery (D-KS) laments, “There’s a vast gulf between the message of Jesus and the political agenda of the conservative movement in America. Young evangelicals need to look at the message of Jesus and count the number of New Testament references to homosexuality and abortion and compare those passages to Jesus’ teachings about caring for the poor. I believe that if we dealt with poverty in this country, we might actually dramatically reduce the abortion rate.”
These beliefs are now sung by a whole new chorus of Democrats beginning to “get” religion in 2006. Many political strategists think it’s starting to pay off.
Take for example, Senator Bob Casey Jr. from Pennsylvania. He’s a pro-life Democrat who unseated fellow evangelical Catholic and incumbent Rick Santorum (R-PA). Casey speaks openly about how his personal faith compels him to address poverty, social injustice and environmental reform. Bob Casey proves that Democrats can compete—not just in spite of, but because of their faith.
In a similar move, Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) addressed more than 500 religious activists at Pentecost 2006, an event hosted by Sojourners/Call to Renewal, a progressive religious organization trying to put poverty on the map in time for the 2008 presidential election. More than 200 of those who attended were emerging evangelical leaders between the ages of 18 and 35.
Even former presidential candidate John Kerry remarked in a September speech at Pepperdine University that he regretted not being more vocal about his faith during the 2004 election.
On the other side of the spectrum, many Republicans are embracing a more compassionate, socially conscious form of conservativism. George W. Bush’s retired speechwriter Michael Gerson—a Wheaton graduate responsible for the president’s national address following 9/11 and the famous “Axis of Evil” speech—is one such Republican. In an interview with Christianity Today in August, Gerson observed: “There is a Christian view on human dignity and on the responsibility of government to protect the weak and on making sure societies are not just organized for the benefit of the strong. Those are consistent teachings that have relevance in every time, and they motivate people across the spectrum.”
Compassion and social consciousness are becoming a focus of evangelicalism. In the spring of 2006, thousands of evangelicals across America participated in dozens of rallies demanding the U.S. government bring an end to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. On the National Mall in Washington, D.C., hundreds of young evangelicals blended into a diverse crowd of conservatives and liberals, Jews, Muslims, Christians and those professing other faiths or no faith at all. Bottom line: Young Evangelicals care deeply about this issue. Genocide must end.
These are the same evangelicals whose National Association president at the time, Ted Haggard, admitted that global warming is a problem and called for a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Not long after, Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was marketed to church groups and Christian private colleges across America. Amazingly, even ultra-conservative Pat Robertson—once a Republican presidential candidate—has proclaimed himself “a convert” on this issue. Robertson now agrees with Gore, Haggard and thousands of young evangelicals. Global warming is a serious problem.
Finally, these are the same twentysomethings who fuel the fire behind evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s P.E.A.C.E. Plan to confront extreme poverty, disease and illiteracy in the most vulnerable parts of Africa.
Do these trends mean the conservative hold on young evangelicals is loosening? Jim Banks—now the executive director of his own political consulting firm helping Republicans stake out multiple elections around the country—doesn’t think so. “The verdict is still out on that,” he says.
THE FUTURE: OUR COMMON FELT-BOARD NATION
Smack in the middle of 2006’s political season, much remains unclear (except that you should vote, if you weren’t planning to already). And further beyond that horizon, the 2008 presidential election looms like a storm of thundering reds and blues.
One thing is certain: Right or Left, Republican or Democrat, Red or Blue, young evangelicals will continue to engage political issues and attract the attention of politicians along the way.
On the giant Red and Blue felt board we call America, Jim Banks and Mara Vanderslice still occupy the edge of the cloth, representing the poles rather than the center of our generation’s political vision.
In reality, most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle of our felt-board nation, not on the extremes. According to Jim Wallis, lifelong evangelical activist and author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (HarperSanFrancisco), our generation has largely shunned political labels and overt partisanship. “[Twentysomething evangelicals] are certainly turning away from the politics of conservative religion and the Religious Right,” Wallis says. “But they’re not necessarily becoming Political Left. They actually want a deeper kind of moral politics that doesn’t conform to left or right, but that challenges the selective moralities of both.”
Gerson echoes these sentiments. In Christianity Today, he remarked, “There are lots and lots of young people, in their 20s to 40s, who are very impatient with older models of social engagement like those used by the Religious Right. They understand the importance of the life issues and the family issues, but they know the concern for justice has to be broader and global.”
Both of these elder evangelical statesmen know our generation is hungry for something fuller and deeper. We are tired of the status quo. We want a better conversation.