Election 2008

Chris Miller/AP
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin

Evangelicals Undecided About Sarah Palin

September 17, 2008 07:58 AM
by Liz Colville
Palin has support from older evangelical Christians but stirred debate among young evangelicals, some of whom say she represents a step backward.

Reaching to the Right

Since being named as Ariz. Sen. John McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has helped to draw a crowd of evangelicals to Sen. McCain’s presidential campaign. They are impressed not only with her high approval rating and reputation as a reformer, but with her values: she is anti-abortion and has five children, one of whom is pregnant but unmarried. Though the Palin family has drawn little attention to this last fact since announcing it in late August, for evangelicals it “reinforces the fact that this family lives its pro-life values,” according to conservative activist Grover Norquist, who spoke to CNN September 2.

Palin’s stance on abortion is in line with McCain’s. On his official site, the Arizona senator advocates for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that put abortion rights in the hands of the federal government. McCain believes the issue should rest with the states, but also believes in an eventual ban on abortion in the United States.

McCain is widely thought to have needed a candidate like Palin to be his running mate to recruit the right to his ticket; he has been known as a conscientious outsider within his own party. Focus on the Family’s founder, James Dobson, for example, made the decision to endorse Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas for the Republican nomination earlier this year, and other conservatives took issue with parts of the McCain platform. Though Huckabee had been trailing McCain considerably before dropping out of the presidential race, he was “proven to have a strong conservative following, especially in the South,” wrote Time magazine.

One thing the Palin effect has emphasized is that the term “evangelical” cannot easily be swept across the U.S. population; it means different things depending on the region of the country and the age group being discussed. To many, opposition to legalized abortion is a uniting factor, but for young people that issue can be divisive or even irrelevant. Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, recently wrote in The New Republic that “with the exception of abortion, younger evangelicals are more committed to social and environmental justice” than their parents.

Historical Context: Evangelicals and Politics

Traditionally, evangelicalism has been associated with the Republican Party, but this longstanding viewpoint may not always have been accurate. As the Institute for the Study of American Evangelists at Wheaton College notes, “it is probably more accurate to say that in the years before 1970 the “average” evangelical was more likely to be a Democrat. With the defection of large numbers of white Southerners to the Republicans in recent decades, the political make-up of evangelicalism has changed. Today the overall political tenor of the movement could be described as moderately conservative and predominantly Republican.”

Opinion & Analysis: Evangelicals and the Palin Effect

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson seconded Grover Norquist’s belief that Palin and her family are helping to recruit evangelical votes to the McCain camp. Following the announcement of 17-year-old Briston Palin’s pregnancy, Dobson told CNN that the Palins “should be commended once again for not just talking about their pro-life and pro-family values, but living them out even in the midst of trying circumstances.”

Female evangelicals have been particularly revved up about Palin’s candidacy. Margaret Feinberg, an evangelical and author based in Colorado, told the Associated Press that the Palin choice “speaks to young evangelical women who face a glass ceiling in our workplaces, but also the stained-glass ceiling of the church.”

But others suggest that McCain’s choice is a step backward. Tony Jones, an emergent church leader, told the AP, “I don’t think the Palin pick does anything for progressive evangelicals. If anything, it tarnishes McCain’s once stellar reputation as an independent-minded politician.” The emergent—also called emerging—church movement attracts many young evangelicals with its focus on Jesus Christ’s way of life.

Palin’s “style of evangelicalism,” the New Republic’s Alan Wolfe argues, “is one shaped by the region of the country in which she lives.” But this does not mean she will alienate, for example, Southern Baptists. In the United States, Wolfe argues, evangelicals have historically thought that government “should not coerce matters of belief. Religious freedom is a good thing because freedom is a good thing.”

And as Gabe Lyons, an evangelical interviewed by the AP noted, his support of Palin “isn’t a faith response, it’s a human response.”

Aligning with Alan Wolfe’s suggestion about young evangelicals’ social and environmental causes, Time’s Amy Sullivan says that the group tends “to be even more pro-life than their parents, but abortion isn’t always a priority that moves their votes—it wasn’t when McCain was alone on the ticket, and there’s no reason for that to change with the addition of Palin. More important, Palin has problematic stances on many of the issues that do motivate young Evangelicals. Her insistence that global warming is not man-made, for instance, is unlikely to appeal to those Evangelicals who have embraced so-called “creation care” in the past few years.”

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