Are Evangelicals Over?

American elections in which no president is chosen are usually hum-drum affairs interesting only to policy wonks. Not 2006. Though not on any ballot, the question voters will be answering is: Has the religious right peaked?

Barring some miracle, it has. I am just back from a two-day visit to Regent University, founded by the evangelist Pat Robertson, a key figure in the religious right. "What you need to understand," a Robertson supporter told me, "is that Pat opposed the war in Iraq from the start." I responded that according to the Lancet, some 600,000 Iraqis have died since the war began. If Robertson had publicly opposed the war, I told them, his influential voice might have spared those lives. "But," one of them answered back, "Pat is a Republican who would not openly oppose the president."

And there, I submit, is why the religious right is in trouble. Since the emergence of a politically active version of conservative Protestantism in the 1980s, it has never been clear whether America's shift to the right took place because deeply religious people became political or because deeply conservative people became religious. I learned at Regent what I have long suspected: For some of the most visible leaders in the religious right, politics trumps religion every time.

But this is not true at all among many of the religious right's followers. Many conservative evangelicals are deeply persuaded that their society has descended into shameless immorality and that their task -- or, as they would say, their purpose -- is to restore the country to its senses. For them, abortion, gay marriage, and stem cells are signs of such moral decadence. One can accuse them of cherry-picking their issues; surely torture or economic inequality should be concerns of people who try to live by the teachings of Jesus. But there is no doubting their sincerity.

Historically, evangelicals believed that religion and politics should be separate: one was holy, the other Satan's domain. But they put those convictions aside in the hopes that the Republican Party would change America's moral climate. It has not, and they are not happy.

It is precisely because conservative evangelicals pay more attention to issues involving sexuality than they do to economics or foreign policy that the Foley affair has become so important. It has become increasingly clear to many evangelicals that their alliance with the Republicans is not paying off: Abortion is still legal (if more restricted); gays can still marry in one state, and civil unions are spreading elsewhere; and opposition to stem cell research is a losing cause.

David Kuo, former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has just come out with a book, "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction," showing what suckers conservative voters have been; in private, he writes, Republicans in the Bush administration wanted their votes and had no interest in leading a new Great Awakening. The fact that a key Republican in Congress was gay, involved himself in the lives of teenagers, and, despite some knowledge of these things, was allowed to continue in office by Republican leaders, has now made clear to even larger numbers of evangelicals how little the administration they loved so much returns their passion.

Americans love God and hate politics. If the people who presume to speak for God, like Pat Robertson, are political activists in religious garb, why become involved with something you hate, especially if it corrupts what you love? Conservative evangelicals are unlikely to vote in large numbers for Democrats. But if even small numbers of them choose not to vote at all, Republicans will be unable to mobilize their base as they did in 2000 and 2004. That alone would constitute sufficient evidence that the religious right's political influence has begun to wane.

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