Sojourners, a politically liberal evangelical organization, hosted a Democratic presidential candidate debate last month, and some pundits were stunned to hear God-talk coming from Democrats.
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus believes this new openness to religion is good politics. "Democrats' best hopes for 2008 and beyond," she says, is making "inroads by luring moderate evangelicals and Catholics who once voted Democratic but have drifted away."
But there is no reason to be overly cynical when Democrats talk about their religion. Hillary Clinton is a life-long Methodist who was shaped even as a teenager by her denomination's social activism. John Edwards was formerly a Southern Baptist, but now he too has joined the United Methodist Church. Barack Obama is an active member of the United Church of Christ, another mainline Protestant denomination.
These liberal church bodies have been in decline for several decades, but they still constitute a sizable bloc of American Christianity. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, evangelical churches in this country have nearly 40 million members. Mainline Protestant churches have 26.3 million. But there are signs the two streams may be converging.
Getting church members involved with politics is relatively new for evangelicals, but the mainliners have been doing it for years. Liberal theologians pioneered "the social gospel," in which political activism took the place of saving souls for heaven.
It used to be liberal theologians who argued that for Christianity to be "relevant," it had to conform to contemporary culture. Now, many evangelicals make that case. It used to be liberal theologians who argued that Christianity needed to downplay its doctrines. Now, many evangelicals sound like that.
As evangelicals jettison traditionalism, liberal denominations are starting to adopt evangelicals' tactics and language. To stem their numerical decline, liberal denominations are joining the church-growth movement and starting their own megachurches. These, in turn, practice a kind of evangelism, organize members into small groups, and pursue experiences of "spirituality."
The newly visible religiosity of liberal politicians may not be a sign that Democrats are courting evangelicals. Rather, it may be a sign that the so-called "mainline" churches are again positioning themselves in the "mainstream" of American culture, and that many culture-conforming evangelicals are also getting swept up into that same mainstream.