posted February 7, 2011

Book Explores Politics of Evangelical Christians

A new book edited by Dr. David Ryden of the Hope College political science faculty looks beyond the voting record and stereotypes in seeking to understand the policy views of evangelical Christians, a group whose rise he considers the most significant occurrence at the intersection of politics and religion in the past three decades.

The volume, "Is the Good Book Good Enough?  Evangelical Perspectives on Public Policy," collects analyses by 13 scholars regarding evangelical approaches to topics ranging from environmentalism, immigration and criminal justice, to the war in Afghanistan, same-sex marriage and racial reconciliation.  It was published in January by Lexington Books of Lanham, Md.

"The emergence of evangelicals in politics is the biggest development in terms of religious influences on politics in the last 30 years, if not more," said Ryden, who is a professor of political science.  "You're looking at a group that represents anywhere from a quarter to a third of the voting population."

While he noted that evangelicals' voting tendencies have been closely scrutinized, the thinking that informs their policy views has not.  He said that evangelicals are more inclined than any other religious tradition to see their faith as impacting their politics. At the same time, he finds they are often unfairly caricatured as simple-minded and single-issue.

"One tends to see evangelicals portrayed as single-issue types, but that doesn't capture a much more complex lay of the land," Ryden said.  "Contemporary evangelicalism is so much more than just this static approach to abortion or same-sex marriage.  Rather, their policy views are evolving on a whole range of domestic and foreign policy debates. There's just a lot more going on."

"I was interested in providing a more nuanced portrait of evangelical policy perspectives," he said.  "At the same time, I wanted to offer a serious critique of evangelical approaches to public policy."

On environmental issues, for example, he said that evangelicals continue to be stereotyped as resistant to concepts such as climate change or conservation. Yet, he said, there are many serious evangelical scholars, to say nothing of lay evangelicals, who consider environmental stewardship as a biblical calling.  "There's been genuine movement, and there's a good, healthy range of opinion," Ryden said.

Similarly, with respect to immigration, where he said that evangelicals are characterized as "anti-immigrant, if not actually nativist," Ryden finds that thinking within evangelical faith communities tells a different story. "Much has changed in the past few years," he said.  "Indeed, evangelicals arguably find themselves uniquely positioned to balance biblical values - the rule of law, justice, and care for the least among us."

While Ryden believes that evangelicals are misunderstood, he also feels that they could be more effective in the policy realm by engaging the issues intellectually, in addition to biblically.  "Scriptural authority ought to be augmented by resort to reason, science and other policy appeals, so that evangelicals aren't so easily dismissed by people those don't share their theological views," he said.

Moreover, Ryden argues that evangelicals need to recognize that their biblically grounded views ought not to place them automatically in one political camp or the other. He believes that they also need to be aware that they are always in danger of being co-opted for partisan political purposes.

"They need to be evangelical Christians first, and their partisan or ideological commitments subordinate to scriptural authority," he said.

While Ryden has seen significant shifts in evangelical thinking on a host of issues in recent years, he finds that the shifts haven't necessarily produced major changes in voting patterns.  In the most recent election cycles, he said, evangelicals remained firmly in the Republican voting column.  Yet he sees a new breed of evangelical leaders who are less overtly partisan, and feels that younger evangelicals who don't necessarily share their parents' cultural conservatism may be less inclined to affiliate with the Republican party. He noted that while it's too early to foretell big shifts in voting among evangelicals, the answer will matter a great deal.

"It's hard to make very firm predictions as to whether evangelicals will become less reliably Republican as their policy attitudes change," he said.  "But given their importance to the Republican voting bloc, it's something that bears watching."

In addition to editing the volume, Ryden wrote the introduction and two chapters, and co-authored another chapter with Hope colleague Dr. Jeffrey J. Polet, professor of political science and chair of the department.  Other contributors include Mark R. Amstutz, Timothy J. Barnett, Francis J. Beckwith, Zachary R. Calo, Ron Kirkemo, Jacob Lenerville, Ruth Melkonian-Hoover, Stephen V. Monsma, Eric Patterson, Noah J. Toly and Jennifer E. Walsh.