The Grassroots Spectator

Evangelical Grassroots versus ‘Grasstops’

Why do evangelical leaders fail to excite the faithful about immigration reform and climate change?

By 7.31.13

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Sometime liberal Baptist Jonathan Merritt recently wrote interestingly for Religion News Service about the seeming failure of evangelical elites to generate more push for “immigration reform,” which he himself supports. He’s a popular young author and columnist whose father was once president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Merritt notes that some prominent officials of evangelical groups, often working through the Evangelical Immigration Table, have toiled strenuously for immigration legislation. But they have failed to excite their constituency:

As it turns out, the evangelical movement on immigration has been mostly top-down and not bottom-up. It has failed to do the difficult work of convincing and mobilizing (or at least neutralizing) the millions of evangelical churchgoers and voters. As The New York Times reports, while “no prominent pastor has spoken out against the immigration (reform) effort … accord has been less broad among the faithful.”

Merritt cites one poll showing the numbers of white evangelicals favoring legalization of illegal immigrants, although a majority, largely unchanged across recent years. And he cites the same poll showing 63 percent of white evangelicals favoring deportation of illegal immigrants. He adds:

I can guarantee you that I am not the only one paying attention to these polls. Lawmakers are too. They know that the evangelical push for immigration reform has failed to penetrate into the core of the constituency. It’s mostly a grasstops movement of high-level leaders, many whom are unlikely to vote anything other than Republican in future elections regardless of whether Congress moves on immigration.

Grasstops is a good phrase to describe this phenomenon, which has become more common among some evangelical elites over the last decade. Merritt also cites the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative, which he supported, and which created a “media frenzy” but “failed to rally average, pew-sitting evangelicals,” who were not “convinced that climate change was man-caused and did not support political action, so many lawmakers ignored the effort.”

Merritt concludes that evangelical elites need to “innervate the everyday faithful, not just lawmakers” if they wish to be politically effective. There are other issues unmentioned by Merritt that some evangelical elites have championed in recent years without exciting genuine widespread support while still getting media hype. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), for example, has championed nuclear disarmament, opposed U.S. enhanced interrogation, and is strongly supporting the global Arms Trade Treaty. There’s little to no evidence that most of NAE’s constituency, which is overwhelmingly conservative, would share these official NAE views.

Over the last decade, new evangelical political initiatives adopting left of center views often get good media play because they are counterintuitive. But rarely is there ever evidence of genuine political effectiveness, even though these initiatives are often well funded by secular foundations, which realized evangelical political importance after the 2004 election. Perhaps there is an expectation, based on stereotypes about evangelical docility, that churchgoers will automatically follow church leaders. But generally the evangelical grassroots, unlike some of the “grasstops,” are deeply embedded with conservative views, theologically, politically, culturally, and economically. They are also typically the most Protestant of Protestants, not especially beholden to church authority, deeply individualistic, and prone to ignore church elites professing to speak for them.

Unlike the Catholic bishops, of course, evangelical church leaders don’t claim a unique ecclesial authority to speak to and for the faithful. Lacking Catholicism’s social teaching tradition, how modern evangelicals have spoken politically has been haphazard. The original Religious Right was mostly created by television preachers and large church pastors who organized not through denominations but newly created parachurch groups funded by direct mail campaigns. It was intrinsically populist and genuinely spoke for millions of conservative religionists who had long seethed over troubling cultural trends that threatened their faith. Most attempts to replicate the Religious Right on the left or even the center have not been very successful.

Although 70-80 percent of evangelicals are conservative, millions are not. Independent parachurch groups like Sojourners or Evangelicals for Social Action sometimes speak for them. Independent conservative groups like the Family Research Council speak for conservative evangelicals and others. Most conservative denominations say very little if anything specifically political. Partly they are wary of the Mainline Protestant Social Gospel history. Some conservative denominations, as members of the NAE, largely let NAE speak for them, although some, to the extent they pay attention, must be uneasy about NAE’s recent direction.

For a political witness, ecclesial bodies are wise to operate more narrowly than independent voices and parachurch groups. They are, after all, churches, whose primary vocation is to evangelize, disciple, and administer the sacraments. But complete political silence, or just outsourcing to other bodies like NAE, may no longer be, if it ever was, the right path.

Evangelical elites, when speaking politically for ecclesial bodies, should stick with issues to which Scripture and Christian tradition speak most directly. As representatives of mostly democratic polities, they should also strive to represent a consensus view within their churches. Otherwise they will create resentment among their members and are likely not to be taken seriously by policymakers or, ultimately, the media. Their obligation towards consensus should include not just the church’s present but also its history. Every denomination has a tradition of special social concerns. Wesleyans have a historic interest in alcohol abuse and the social ills resultant from gambling. Baptists have a special legacy with religious liberty. Evangelical ecclesial bodies, each with unique vocations, have been most effective when focused on special social challenges with which they have their own noble legacy. Speaking routinely to a smorgasbord of topical issues for which they lack expertise won’t work.

Merritt’s legitimate concerns about evangelical “grasstops” versus grassroots on immigration, and global warming, point to the larger problem of modern evangelicals lacking a clear teaching for political witness. However the current immigration legislation debates conclude, they hopefully will stimulate future parameters on how evangelical leaders speak politically for their churches.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.