Many religious conservatives thought this might be the year of an evangelical comeback, when voters would throw President Obama out because of his support of same-sex marriage and abortion, and his health plan’s birth control mandate. It didn’t work out that way.
“I think this was an evangelical disaster,” says Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Mohler says white evangelicals moved in lockstep: Seventy-nine percent voted for Republican Mitt Romney, the same percentage as voted for President George W. Bush in 2004. He says they boldly telegraphed their concerns about Obama, and “our message was rejected by millions of Americans who went to the polls and voted according to a contrary worldview.”
Mohler says there’s a danger that evangelicals won’t see this larger lesson — that they will say Obama won because of his unique story and personality.
“No, it was far more than that,” he says. “Four states dealt with the issue of same-sex marriage and after 31 to 33 straight victories, we’ve been handed a rather comprehensive set of defeats on the issue of the integrity of marriage.”
That, and the legalization of marijuana in some states, are examples of what Mohler calls “a seismic moral shift in the culture.”
Others say 2012 revealed another shift.
“The understanding that the evangelical vote is a kingmaking vote, I think, is now dead,” says Shaun Casey, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary and a former Obama adviser. He says evangelicals pulled out all the stops to unseat the president.
“Billy Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association bought full-page ads in newspapers; that made no difference,” he says. “Ralph Reed spent tens of millions of dollars getting out the vote in battleground states; that didn’t make the difference. And you add all of that up, and it was not enough because of the changing demographics of our country.”
“The power of this group to shape elections,” says Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “is limited by its size.”
“They do turn out,” he says. “A quarter of the electorate described themselves as white evangelicals. It’s just that that’s not enough to overcome the strong Democratic support of other religious groups.”
Smith says Obama won 95 percent of black Protestants, three-quarters of Hispanic Catholics, 7 out of 10 Jewish voters and 70 percent of religiously unaffiliated voters, which is the fastest-growing segment of “religion.”
Early on, there were signs that the power of religious conservatives might be waning, says political scientist Mark Rozell at George Mason University. In the primaries, conservative religious leaders kept trying to crown various candidates: Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum — just to avoid the Mormon, Romney, as the party nominee.
“But they ended up with Mitt Romney as the party nominee,” he observes, “showcasing that their power wasn’t all that great — in part because they didn’t have a unifying message nor a figure who could unite them.”
Rozell says in their political heyday — in the 1980s and ’90s — evangelicals had the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition to mobilize them. They had Pat Robertson and James Dobson to inform and inspire them.
“But today, there really is no single leader or group of leaders who are directing the religious conservative movement,” he says. “And so it seems to many to be splintered or directionless.”
Mohler at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says evangelicals now need to approach politics in a fundamentally different way. They need to bend a little on issues of lesser importance — for example, supporting candidates who have different ideas about the role of government — but who agree with them on marriage and life issues. And most important, Mohler says, evangelicals need to reach beyond their suburban walls.
“If we do not become the movement of younger Americans and Hispanic Americans and any number of other Americans, then we will just become a retirement community,” he says. “And that cannot, that cannot, serve the cause of Christ.”
And, as this election shows, minorities are the growth area of both politics and religion.