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End of an illusion

Campaign 2008 | We evangelicals are not the political force many thought we were

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

If God is not yet laughing out loud, He must at least be engaged in a protracted chuckle. "The kings of the earth set themselves," says Psalm 2, "and the rulers take counsel together." Yes, indeed. Not in the history of civilization has a more studied or costly consultation taken place-and this one only to determine who gets the next four-year term to lead just one nation.

We're approaching the billion-dollar mark in that consultation. Is there anyone who thinks we're getting a good return on our investment?

Certainly not the candidates. Especially Mitt Romney, whose personal fortune is $35 million smaller than it was before he threw his hat in the ring-and then had to reach in and ignominiously pull it out. Some folks say he now sees that as a down payment on the 2012 election. Or hadn't you heard that that race is also now underway?

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Did Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson get their money's worth? After all the high-stakes betting, neither one even got out of the starting gate. They're forever behind the ballyhooed Barbaro-the purported 2006 Triple Crown winner who broke down just as the big race got under way.

So wasn't a record number of dropouts and breakdowns supposed to help decide the nominating races by now? Wasn't that the word last fall-that by mid-to-late February, the shape of the general election contest would be definitively set?

Well, it's not just the candidates who are befuddled and embarrassed. So are all the experts-the campaign managers, the media whizzes, the pollsters, the veteran journalists. Now they are sizing up Hillary, Barack, John, Mike, and Ron, and telling us conclusively about the next few weeks: Anything can happen. The fact that dour Ron Paul is being taken more seriously at the end of the cycle than he was at the beginning tells you most of what you need to know. With the Lord of heaven, he too is chuckling a bit.

Not at all in a chuckling mood are most evangelical political activists. Evangelicals come to the end of the primary process with a vivid reminder that they represent anything but a coherent voting bloc-and therefore are vastly diminished as a political force. When James Dobson, the supposed captain of the good ship Evangelical, angrily joined Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter in saying "Never!" to John McCain, the coast-to-coast dismay was palpable. You could hear it everywhere: "Say it ain't so, Doctor!" Even long-time Dobson ally Gary Bauer sensed the folly in proclaiming (as Dobson explicitly did) that it's better not to vote at all than to vote for so-and-so. You had to ask: Were some longtime leadership roles being inadvertently shelved?

The net effect, of course, is that neither a McCain candidacy nor ultimately a McCain White House would owe a minute of attention to the demands (or polite requests) of anyone perched on their steps with an "evangelical" label. A January Wall Street Journal/NBC poll says that 45 percent of all Americans hold concerns over having an evangelical Christian serve as president. The problem with playing power politics is that you always run the risk of discovering-in public-that you really have no power.

It's time to end the illusion. What we evangelicals should have known before and have now demonstrated again in the current round (both to each other and to the outside world) is that we aren't quite as popular in the public square as we like to think. We may carry a pretty strong Word, but we also carry a fairly limp stick. We should have known that up front-and been content with such a role.

That doesn't mean we have no part in politics. We should be energetically, robustly, and noisily involved. And this month's Dobson advice notwithstanding, our involvement should continue right up through the final vote.

But we shouldn't imagine we've got political clout we don't have. When we engage in such pretense, we run the risk of hearing God laugh-not at the bewildered unbelievers, but at us as well.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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