List of evangelical kingmakers may signal shift in politics, opinions


NEW YORK, N.Y. — As the battle for the Republican presidential nomination takes shape, it is revealing a "seismic shift" in the way evangelicals shape their opinions, political observers say.

A recent story by the Religion News Service, in an effort to "identify the religious leaders who'll play major roles in the primary elections," named the top 10 kingmakers of the Religious Right. Experts say the people included—or omitted—from its ranks could indicate a shift in the way evangelicals will vote for president.

The list, released April 18, includes a suburban mother of two who happens to direct Iowa's chapter of Concerned Women for America. But it doesn't include Old Guard evangelicals like Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. Also missing from the list was Jerry Falwell, who died May 15, a month after the list was released.

Robertson and others have become less relevant, not just because of advancing age, but because the Christian Right has become much more diversified than it was 10 years ago, said Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C.

Evangelical Protestants comprise one-fifth of the total electorate, including one-third of Republican voters, according to the Pew Research Center on People and the Press.

But there is unrest in the evangelical community over its political alignment with certain issues, Olson said, and that will cause some loss of evangelical voters to the Democratic Party in upcoming elections.

"I most definitely think that there is some impulse for a different political witness today within evangelicalism," said Olson, co-editor of Christian Clergy in American Politics, in an e-mail interview with Associated Baptist Press. "It's tempting to say that what some evangelicals are looking for today is a more moderate political stance. But I think it's more accurate to say that evangelicals are just looking for a broader range of issues to be emphasized."

According to the RNS report, editors interviewed conservative leaders, activists and political scientists to get a wide range of opinions in compiling their list. They gave special weight to leaders active in states with early primaries, since they will have more influence on the presidential election.

At the top of the heap, James Dobson reigns pre-eminent. More than 220 million people listen to his daily radio show, and the founder of Focus on the Family has praised some potential candidates, like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, while remaining silent about others.

Other notables on the list include the head of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins. Located in Washington, D.C., Perkins pushes the evangelical agenda on Capitol Hill, often with other Focus on the Family affiliates.

Richard Land also figured prominently on the RNS list. As head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, he has praised the moral stance of Mormon Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) while criticizing the divorce history of Rudy Giuliani (R-NY).

Relative newcomers
The list also includes:
• Michael Farris, founding chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association and chancellor of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va. According to the report, Farris and "the 80,000 well-organized HSLDA families dotting all 50 states can give any campaign a huge push."

• Pam Olsen, president of the Florida Prayer Network. As chairwoman of the Bush campaign's outreach to Florida evangelicals, the mother of four and friend of former Gov. Jeb Bush greatly influenced the 2004 presidential election.

• Rod Parsley, pastor of the 12,000-member World Harvest Church in Ohio. Ohio is a crucial state for presidential candidates. Parsley also heads the Center for Moral Clarity and Reformation Ohio, which works to register religious conservative voters and urges pastors to preach about political issues.

• Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance. The alliance is instrumental in hosting candidate forums and mobilizing campaign volunteers.

• Tamara Scott, director of Iowa's chapter of Concerned Women for America. Scott co-chaired President Bush's outreach to Iowa in 2004 and has already organized meetings for candidates to meet with small groups of constituents.

• Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice and national radio talk show host. Sekulow has argued numerous cases before the Supreme Court and is now endorsing Romney for the nomination.

• Don Wildmon, a "soft-spoken Southerner" from Tupelo, Miss. Wildmon, who got his start in the 1970s arguing for TV decency, now talks about politics and society on 185 radio stations owned by his American Family Association. He is also active in convening meetings between top religious leaders and conservative political leaders.

Room for others
Olson said she would add three others to the RNS list: Bishop T.D. Jakes of Dallas, because of his influence with African-Americans; California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, because of his emphasis on nontraditional evangelical issues like HIV/AIDS; and Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, because of his leadership on environmental issues.

Marty Duren, a Baptist pastor from Georgia and prominent blogger, said any activist—whether liberal or conservative—who believes that a "reign of righteousness" will be instilled with the election of certain candidates is "sadly mistaken."

Jesus could not have been clearer that his kingdom is not of this world, Duren said.

"No amount of campaigning for 'family values' through legislative action will succeed in changing even a single human heart," Duren said. "Only Jesus Christ can do that."

APB News Service