Thirty-three-year-old evangelical Steve Knight - a pro-life voter who twice supported George W. Bush - is backing Democrat Barack Obama this election, displaying a mindset that angers and worries older leaders of the movement who call Mr. Obama an “abortion absolutist.”
Mr. Knight and other evangelicals say Republicans have failed to deliver on the abortion issue, and they are weighing their electoral options this year. Sen. John McCain could be dealt a major blow if the liberal evangelical movement expands and persuades voters to embrace Mr. Obama or sit out the election.
“We did what they said to do. We elected all these people, we got conservative justices appointed at the bench, and nothing happened,” said Tony Jones, the 40-year-old leader of Emergent Village, a national group that often speaks for more liberal Christians from an evangelical background.
Those evangelicals are suffering from “fetus fatigue” and want to “give up,” said Douglas Groothuis, a philosophy professor at Denver Seminary.
Mr. Obama, who is pro-choice, is trying to give such voters a home. The Democratic Party Platform Committee has called for taxpayer-funded efforts to reduce the number of abortions, although it retained its traditional statement supporting “a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion.”
Values voters were the story of the 2004 election, credited with delivering re-election to Mr. Bush. In the months after the election, Democrats vowed to try to peel those voters away from Republicans by talking about values and by trying to convince evangelicals that they should judge Democrats on issues such as fighting poverty and AIDS and protecting the environment and human rights.
On Saturday, those concerns will be aired when Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain attend a forum hosted by megachurch preacher Rick Warren, who has a congregation of 22,000 at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and who is trying to broaden evangelicals’ concerns to the nontraditional social issues that Democrats espouse.
The challenge to the traditional order worries evangelical leaders.
“People see Warren holding hands with Obama at Warren’s church and they think he is a Christian man, but when a candidate votes 100 percent for abortion, according to Planned Parenthood and NARAL, then that man’s Christianity does not line up with the Christian truth upheld by the masses of true believers in America,” said Lou Engle, founder of the Call, a group that holds cross-denominational events to promote spiritual awakening.
Mr. Engle, who is leading a gathering of people of all faiths on the Mall in Washington on Saturday, and high-profile evangelicals such as author Tim LaHaye say Mr. Warren is leading his followers astray and giving Mr. Obama equal footing with Mr. McCain, whose voting record is praised by pro-life groups.
“While I respect Rick greatly - we are both Southern Baptists - I think he is naive and influenced by some socialist-minded people who claim to be evangelicals,” Mr. LaHaye told The Washington Times.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was a Southern Baptist pastor before he was a politician and who gave up his quest for the Republican presidential nomination and endorsed Mr. McCain, said Mr. Warren knows that the nation will be watching and will ask tough questions that will help define the candidates’ stances.
“As for Obama’s views on the life issues, they are totally out of sync with those who have deep convictions about the sanctity of life - whether because of biblical views or just simple common sense,” Mr. Huckabee said.
What inroads Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party can make has sparked widespread debate.
The Rev. Brian McLaren, a nationally known speaker and author who represents a more liberal branch of evangelicalism and has endorsed Mr. Obama, said he thinks Democrats are succeeding.
“I’ve only met one person in my travels in recent months who has said he is voting for McCain, and that was because he was an admittedly single-issue voter,” Mr. McLaren said. “Nearly all the vocal people I’ve met are enthusiastic about Obama. Based on the people I’m in front of as a speaker, I’d never guess the poll numbers are as close as they are.”
But the polls of self-described evangelicals don’t bear out Mr. McLaren’s observations.
While national polls show Mr. McCain to be neck and neck with Mr. Obama, a survey from the authoritative Barna Group shows that Mr. McCain holds a commanding lead among evangelicals, with 61 percent to Mr. Obama’s 17 percent.
On the abortion issue, polling information on evangelical attitudes is limited. But in a Sept. 6, 2007, Pew study, only 31 percent of white evangelicals thought abortion should be legal, while 39 percent thought it should be illegal in most cases, and 26 percent thought it should be outlawed in all situations.
A study by an advocacy group called Third Way found that 85 percent of evangelicals think abortion is “the taking of a human life.”
Third Way, though, argues that 66 percent of white evangelicals are “gray” on abortion, “believing it should be neither always legal nor always illegal,” said spokeswoman Jill Pike.
As Mr. Knight’s experience suggests, younger evangelicals may represent the most fertile ground for a new movement.
Mr. Warren, in a recent interview, told The Washington Times that younger evangelicals are “more pro-life than their parents, but they’re anti-religious right.”
“Nobody can tell what direction they’re going to go in,” he said.
D.A. Carson, a pre-eminent evangelical theologian and scholar, said there is no doubt that many young Christians are “more flexible today and much less shaped by one or two ideological touchstones.”
“I don’t know that it’s maturation so much as generational development,” said Mr. Carson, a New Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, Ill.
“In some cases, there’s maturation, and in some cases, there’s merely dilution of conviction, or spreading of concern over more issues,” Mr. Carson said.