Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Evangelicals and the Muscular Middle

Dennis R. Hoover


December 8, 2006

In the wake of the Democratic victories in the House and Senate, numerous commentators have announced the return of "centrism." In his November 9 New York Times column, "The Middle Muscles In," David Brooks argued that angry moderates deserted the Republican Party and helped elect several new moderate Democrats whose policy demands should be taken seriously. Likewise, Joe Klein's cover story in the November 20 issue of Time explained "Why the Center is the New Place to Be."

Featured prominently in much of the coverage was a narrowing of the "God gap"; Republicans' advantage slipped not only among regular church attendees but also among white Evangelicals—the Republican Party's base constituency. Narrowing the God gap was a key objective of many Democrats, who felt that the lesson of the 2004 election was that to attract a "values voter" one must learn how to use "God talk" without embarrassment. Democratic victories this year are now widely seen as a vindication of adopting a more centrist tone.

I wish all this centrist optimism was warranted. But it isn't. Ideological conservatives are still the most powerful Republican faction, and the Democrats who are about to take over congressional committees are veteran liberals, not new-breed moderates.  And as for the supposedly moderating effects of God talk, we need only recall the presidency of Bill Clinton, whose masterful use of faith-based rhetoric did not temper the partisan fights of the 1990s.

It would not be surprising if the next two years are as partisan as ever, with a Democratic Congress that (a) behaves as if a thin electoral majority is a mandate, and (b) caters to its base, tacking toward the center only when necessary to scrape together 50 percent + one. Many would see this as poetic justice for the Bush administration, but the country will be the worse for it.

This is where Evangelicals could make a real difference. After decades of focusing narrowly on "culture wars" issues, Evangelicals are increasingly interested in a broader biblical agenda that addresses structural as well as personal sin and cuts across the usual partisan lines. The easiest place to observe the new stereotype-defying trend is in international issues. For instance, a recent cover story in Foreign Affairs commends evangelical efforts on global poverty, AIDS, the environment, Darfur, religious freedom, and more.

Still, none of this has yet translated into a fully coherent Christian agenda of justice for all. Christian "centrism" should mean being biblically centered, not merely splitting the difference between the two party platforms or haphazardly adopting ideologically disparate moral causes.

Nor have Evangelicals yet developed a realistic political strategy. Principled centrism won't "just happen" as a result of the extremes becoming exhausted. It's like anything else in politics; it requires the determined mobilization of money and votes. Evangelicals are uniquely positioned to make this happen. For the first time in a long time, Evangelicals are a constituency that is in play and can exercise leverage over both political parties.

The Democratic Party elite will likely try to claim a mantle of faith-friendly centrism while yielding little actual policy ground to the center. But Evangelicals, if they are smart, will use this opportunity to once again become a relevant force within the Democratic Party, where they can help police the use and abuse of the centrist label. This will in turn greatly enhance Evangelicals' leverage with Republicans, who will no longer be able to take them for granted and will also have to yield policy ground to a muscular middle that Evangelicals themselves help to define.

—Dennis R. Hoover, Editor
   The Review of Faith & International Affairs


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”