The religious right is losing ground in the US. But this phenomenon could be framed another way: some of its members are moving with some speed to the political left.
Progressives tend to range, according to The Washington Post, between 11 to 36 per cent of the evangelical spectrum. But the evangelical left is gradually chipping away at the conservative leviathan, a process that began after George Bush's re-election in 2004.
Their success comes along with the erosion of the Reagan consensus which in the 1980s witnessed a curious alignment of forces: fierce individualists shared the political ground with keen evangelicals and old-school conservatives. Since the 1980s, they became formidable, a force that could not be ignored. But, while a candidate like John McCain can't ignore the evangelical vote (historically it is they, more than registered Democrats, who march out on election days), their uniformity is no longer apparent.
Evangelical authors and activists such as Brian D. McLaren of Lauren, founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in upper Montgomery County, preach with a set of revised priorities. Climate change, still unmentionable — and plausibly deniable — in many parts of the conservative movement, figures prominently. Efforts at achieving social justice are underlined with vigour. A work like The Secret Message of Jesus, released in 2006, pushes for earthly labours that refocus the religious message to the just and good life.
An entry on the progressive website Pomomusings jots down McLaren's main views. The message of the 'Kingdom of God' is not, as he puts it, 'life in heaven after you die', but an active, living project Christians must undertake on earth. For Jesus, it was 'good news for the poor'; for McLaren, the Kingdom of God suggests a 'social dimension', one that confronts believers' assumptions 'about peace, war, prosperity, poverty, privilege, responsibility, religion, and God'.
The world of the afterlife diminishes in the rhetoric, as does that of a righteous, anti-welfare, nuke-loving Christ. McLaren cringes at the staple portrayal of Jesus among conservative evangelicals as a 'pro-war, anti-poor, anti-homosexual, anti-environment, pro-nuclear weapons authority figure draped in an American flag'. While his theological base has raised eyebrows among some theologians, McLaren's politics have kept him afloat. Consuming, inclusive love, rather than militant, repellent hate, drives his activism.
There are others who are hewing away at the religious assumptions of the evangelical right, suggesting its imminent demise. Detroit-raised Rev. Jim Wallis, who has put his energies into political consultancy (witness his presence at the Democratic forum on faith on CNN), argues that America has entered the era of a 'post-religious right'. The Great Awakening, published only at the start of this year, sketches such an America, one which pushes poverty to the centre of political discussion and sees fewer names on the member lists of the religious right.
America's young evangelicals, argues Wallis, are indignant at the 30,000 daily deaths from, in the words of U2's front man Bono, 'stupid poverty'. To this can be added pandemics, environmental conservation, trafficking, human rights, war and peace. This, not 'gay marriage amendments in Ohio', is what counts.
Wallis does not stop there. He cites the views of some seasoned religious activists, with Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church claiming an interest in poverty, racial reconciliation, global poverty, AIDS and 'the plight of women in the developing world'. Another pastor, Adam Hamilton of the United Methodist Church of Resurrection, suggests fanning 'the flames of the 21st century revival within American Christianity'.
Wallis also sees a crucial transformation among the Republican's opponents, a 'levelling of the praying field'. Democrats are now seeking to shed their battle-weary secularism, promoting messages of faith. They are, as he puts in, 'coming out of the closet as people of faith'.
On the back of these progressive thinkers come organisations and centres that are marching to a similar tune. Groups such as the Centre for Progressive Christianity, based near Seattle in Washington State, regard the views of McLaren and the rising strain of progressive evangelism as healthy. One of the points of their mission stands out: developing 'strategies for evangelism that do not assume the absolute superiority of Christianity'. This is done simply to avoid contributing 'to the world's tragic divisions'.
Wallis may be overly optimistic in his prognoses. But there is little doubt that the evangelical progressives are making headway. The religious right has stalled, itself numbed by the promotional mantra of 'change'. The success of Mike Huckabee in some of the primaries was not merely a testament to evangelist suspicions of McCain, but his insistence on putting poverty reduction back into America's political conversation.
Jim Wallis' blog at the Huffington Post
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He blogs at Oz Moses.