Are media misconceptions of evangelicals about to start working in their political favor?

By Kathryn Joyce

After The Los Angeles Times reported on the draft of new Christian-political guidelines being considered by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the blogosphere buzzed about Larry Stammer’s “expose” of the “top-secret document“—intended for “private circulation” among NAE members, but cunningly “snagged” by The LA Times. The cause of all this titillation was the supposed revolutionary nature of the document, heralding a new era of “kinder, gentler” evangelicals, who were about to make a mammoth shift to the left. It would mean “really bad news for Bush,” and a “nightmare come true” for Karl Rove.

Beyond the excitable blogosphere, Mother Jones’ Bradford Plumer saw the specter of “an evangelical revolution” in the NAE draft, whereby “evangelicals are getting ready to abandon their right-wing ways.” And Bob Roehr, writing in Pride Source, a gay-rights newsletter, anticipated that the draft would help undercut support for the gay-marriage ban, since the document reputedly warned evangelicals “against becoming too closely identified with one political party.”

Unfortunately for Plumer and Roehr, this is wishful thinking. Not only does the NAE’s draft mandate “biblical morality” on same-sex marriage, but in its 12 pages the authors find room to condemn language such as “gay rights” as an inappropriate expansion of “rights talk.” While the mystique surrounding the document suggests that change is afoot, the draft foretells no real leftward shift, just as it was never actually top-secret. It’s posted on the internet for those who care to look. But judging from the reports in the many papers that ran the story (notably excluding The New York TimesThe Boston GlobeThe Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, none of which ran the story at all), it seems the draft was little-read, and widely misunderstood.

Larry Stammer’s article, “Evangelical Leaders Reexamine Principles,” came first, appearing last Sunday in The LA Times, one day before the NAE posted the draft-guidelines, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” on its website. Stammer reports that the document, three years in the making, lays “a groundbreaking framework for political action that…could change how the estimated 30 million evangelicals in this country are viewed by liberals and conservatives alike.” He notes the major positions of the draft: religiously-based support for government protection of the poor, sick and disabled, “including fair wages, healthcare, nutrition and education”; a “‘sacred responsibility’” to protect the environment; steadfast opposition to abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, gay-marriage and other “‘social evils’”; and an avoidance of “excessive nationalism.”

Julia Duin, reporting two days later for The Washington Times, added a telling detail largely overlooked elsewhere. The wording of the last clause as published in The LA Times—”‘evangelicals must guard against overidentifying Christian social goals with a single political party’”—caused so many inquiries and protests from evangelical readers that the NAE revised the line to read evangelicals “must be careful not to equate Christian faith with partisan politics.” Stammer’s report ended up contributing to the theological refinement of the document.

Such uproar over nuances of language should have prompted closer attention from the press. Still, Stammer’s report on the draft became the first-source document for much of the media. Many papers owned, like The LA Times, by the Tribune company reprinted the story verbatim, while non-Tribune papers quoted large sections of Stammer’s article—condensed versions lacking context and emphasizing the allegedly “progressive” nature of the new NAE positions.

Ted Olsen, at the Christianity Today weblog, laments that papers picking up the story “apparently don’t have the draft and are rewriting the Times story without knowing what the NAE statement really says.” Moreover, they’ve been re-headlining it to suggest a stronger shift than may actually be at work here: “Evangelical paper backs off politics,” “Evangelicals seek to distance faith and politics,” and “Proposal warns evangelicals on politics.” The shame, to Olsen, isn’t just that the headlines mislead, but that “although the document still isn’t done, it’s getting press attention now.” Ignore the headlines, he suggests, and wait until the final draft is released in October to debate its meaning.

Another year, “wait and see” might be a wise course of action. But this, of course, is an election year, and the three-plus months between now and the expected October adoption of the final draft are rather a long time to be chasing a carrot. Because that’s what this is: the evangelical vote dangled before both parties, when before it had been assumed that the constituency (invariably quantified for the press as being 30-million strong, a Borg-like mass that allegedly thinks with one mind) could only, and already did, belong to one. After all, as Stammer wrote, the NAE is readying evangelicals for “the give and take of political compromise,” where “they may frequently have to settle for ‘half a loaf,’” when working with others for a common cause.

And yet, the NAE’s motto is “Cooperation without Compromise.” In context, “half-a-loaf” is part of a different directive: “Christians engaged in political activity must maintain their integrity and keep their biblical values intact. While they may frequently settle for ‘half-a-loaf,’ they must never compromise principle by engaging in unethical behavior or endorsing or fostering sin.”

The issues on which evangelicals may never compromise are still the so-called “social evils”—abortion, embryonic stem-cells, euthanasia, gay marriage. The unbending position on this familiar group of evangelical bêtes noir, far more than the charity and environmentalism lauded by the press, is the common cause in the NAE’s new evangelical platform; the shared calling meant to transcend other divisions along the evangelical spectrum, over party affiliation or other areas of “policy” disagreement such as Iraq. They’re the exceptions to the new-found “political realism” credited by Stammer as the basis for the NAE’s sense of cooperation and diversity. And they’re not up for discussion.

In other words: Agree to disagree about Iraq and Afghanistan, but vote your Bible on abortion. You don’t have to be a Republican or support the “war on terror,” but vote “traditional” on gay marriage. That this happens to keep the “new” evangelicals squarely on the right is in some ways a given, but at the same time it is its own kind of cunning: re-imaging what is for all practical purposes a Republican constituency as independent-minded non-partisans with just a few, reasonable requests. A constituency theoretically available to Democrats, so long as Democrats adopt “biblical values” already adhered to by the right: vote “evangelical” on gay marriage, and they’ll talk about the rest.

The vagueness of NAE representatives’ comments on the draft—”a maturation of the evangelical public mind,” “more thoughtful,” “a surprise to those who have a very stereotyped idea of what evangelicals are”—seem intended to raise curiosity and hopes in the interim between now and October. And it makes an enticing, if narcotic, siren song for politicians: 30 million votes, if you meet evangelicals half-way. They’re willing to compromise on the rest, so really it’s only fair. Just a little closer. Close your eyes and jump. You’re almost there.