Not long ago, if the words religion and voting came together in the same sentence, chances are the topic was a certain kind of religious voter: a Protestant evangelical or conservative Catholic driven to political activism by opposition to legal abortion and qualms about homosexuality.
The days of the easy label may be over.
In this election season, the religious right, the umbrella term long applied to that predictable religious Republican voter, once ubiquitous on the airwaves and in print, has seemingly vanished from the scene. The two hot-button issues that have dominated so much of U.S. politics in recent years have likewise receded, giving ground to such other issues more readily associated with a liberal agenda: war, poverty, the environment and human rights.
This rearrangement of the political landscape, this "leveling of the praying field," as TIME magazine has termed it, is largely the work of a new generation of evangelicals--young people who don't fit comfortably into the old political-religious mold and aren't necessarily aligned with a party.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners community in Washington, an expert in the new electoral dynamics, and one of the architects of a broader religious/political conversation, attributes the changes to nothing less than "the Spirit."
"We can discuss some of the historical factors" in the changes underway, he said in an April 29 phone interview with NCR, "but I do think it feels like some sort of Spirit movement going on."
Wallis--an evangelical Christian who's had his differences with the religious right--finds an indicator in the huge attendance at his recent book signings: They have been drawing thousands. His latest book, recently released--The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America--argues that the religious right experiment is at an end. That book and his previous one, the New York Times bestseller God's Politics, articulate a "seamless garment" political framework, one that opposes not only abortion, but also a range of other assaults against human dignity, including poverty, the death penalty and modern warfare.
Wallis believes that the unusual enthusiasm among young evangelicals and Catholics for that broader agenda is nothing less than a deepening faith insisting on a voice.
"The only way I can explain the success of God's Politics," he said, is "that all kinds of people out there were already feeling, 'Wait a minute, I'm a. person of faith, too, and those voices [on the religious right] don't speak for me.' Or 'I care about moral values, too, and I've got more than just two.' Because when you get a couple thousand people at a book signing night after night, you know it's not about a book. It's about the timing of this."
The week before the interview, Wallis conducted a "justice revival" in Columbus, Ohio, in conjunction with 15 denominations. Some 10,000 participants showed up each night, half of them under 30. The revival included a traditional call to conversion, but "conversion to the Jesus who ... invites us into a journey of relationship with those he calls the least of these," Wallis said.
"It wasn't just a call to the social gospel," said Wallis. "It was a call to personal faith that issues forth in social justice, because if we just preach the social gospel and don't talk about the faith, they will burn out, they will tire, they will get discouraged."
Wallis reports an upsurge in interest in social issues when he visits campuses too. A decade ago, he stopped visiting college campuses, finding a lack of interest. These days, he speaks regularly at college events.
In part, he said, the enthusiasm reflects a generation that is more global in …