The first presidential debate in early August should worry Republicans, but not because of any memorable gaffes. It was the deafening silence — begging to be filled by Bernie Sanders — that signals trouble on the GOP’s horizon.
Plenty of hot air and bluster circulated in the debate, to be sure, but one of the key culture war issues that has stoked so much anger and passion since the 1980s — gay rights — was notably absent. The most notable comment on the subject came from Ohio governor John Kasich, who said that “I’m going to love [my children] not matter what they do” in response to a question about same-sex marriage. “God gives me unconditional love” Kasich added. “I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.”
We are a long way from Patrick Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, in which he declared that “there is a religious war going on in this country … for the soul of America” — and thus unofficially launched the culture wars that have dominated our politics for a generation.
The issue that sparked the most passion among the 10 candidates was the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, and the tone and quality of that “debate” were summed up by Mike Huckabee’s cri-de-coeur that “when somebody points a gun at your head and loads it, you need to take it seriously. And by God, I take it seriously.” Meantime, he and the other candidates showed little seriousness about economic inequality. Nor did they meaningfully address the subject of climate change.
The candidates’ silence on the latter subjects plays well among many Republican voters, but it threatens to erode their appeal among a key segment of the GOP base: young evangelical Christians who are uncomfortable with party’s denialism on climate change and its inattention to inequality.
White evangelicals — the bedrock of the GOP base — constitute about one-fourth of the U.S. population, and they prefer Republicans to Democrats by a margin of 46 points (68 to 22 percent), according to recent data from The Pew Research Center. And the number is actually rising. The percentage of white evangelicals who identify as Republicans has increased by 10 points in the past eight years.
But this strong affiliation of white evangelicals with the GOP runs up against a second key trend of American politics: young people are solidly Democratic. In the Pew survey, millennials (people 18 to 33) identified with Democrats by a margin of 51 to 35 percent.
Though young and older evangelicals are similar in their rates of identification with the GOP, young evangelicals’ attitudes are close to their Democratic-leaning age cohort on two specific issues: economic inequality and environmentalism. According to the 2012 General Social Survey, for example, roughly 60 percent of young evangelicals believed that government was doing too little for the environment or to fight poverty. This is in sharp contrast to the strong anti-government animus among white evangelicals more broadly. In a 2014 Pew survey, they preferred “small government/fewer services” to “big government/more services” by a spread of 47 points (70 to 23 percent).
All of this should worry the GOP — a party that has made “moral issues” the foundation of its platform for a generation.
It’s not a coincidence that the surging star of the Democratic presidential race, Bernie Sanders, is aligned with the world’s most prominent religious leader, Pope Francis, in casting inequality and climate change as the greatest moral challenges — one might say the greatest sins — of our time. The older, white evangelicals in the GOP’s base may dismiss that message as nonsense, but their children are open to it — which makes the recent announcement that Bernie Sanders will speak at Liberty University this fall very interesting news indeed.
Liberty, founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, remains the symbolic heart of the Religious Right. The political organization that Falwell subsequently created, the Moral Majority, was critical to the movement’s early years. Given that context, Sanders will face a largely hostile audience at the school.
But not entirely hostile.
The young, evangelical voters at Liberty have been taught that a politician’s stance on the moral issues is the acid test of whether a Christian should vote for him or her. But what if the most important moral issues are no longer feminism, gay rights and reproductive rights? What if inequality and climate change are becoming integral to young evangelicals’ moral universe?
Converting just a small fraction of the Republican evangelical base would make a big difference, given the GOP’s deep problems with essentially every non-white, non-Southern voting bloc. And a small-scale conversion is a plausible goal. While abortion remains a potent culture war issue, a recent survey by Pew showed that two-thirds of evangelicals under 35 are open to voting for a candidate who disagrees with them on that issue.
A Liberty graduate and writer for the conservative website The Blaze recently noted that evangelicals should gladly welcome the opportunity to engage with Sanders, citing the example of Jesus, who “hung out with the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and the exiles.” The thing about hanging out with the exiles and outcasts, though, is that you never know what you will learn — or where the journey might lead. If evangelicals do give Bernie a fair hearing, they might discover that they have far more in common with the democratic socialist than they had ever imagined. More than that: They might actually give him their vote.