If Republican Senate candidate and tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell loses next week in Delaware as polls now predict, she will have been undone by faith -- not her own Roman Catholicism, but by evangelical Christianity.
It was the pro-life, former anti-masturbation crusader's appeal to the devout in the primary that have made her so vulnerable to comments she made on Bill Maher's long-cancelled show about dating a warlock -- anyone who had not run as a believer might have simply laughed off her taste in men. Though hanging out with pagans as a young woman amounted to nothing, her admission and the frenzy that followed took the shine off her evangelical credentials. Maneuvering to undo the damage during the general election campaign against Democrat Chris Coons, O'Donnell has gone hard at Christian issues, attacking evolution and the constitutional basis for the separation of church and state.
A question since the tea party reared its head is how much of the old religious right the new anti-government upstarts can tolerate. O'Donnell (no relation to me) has found out. But it would be a mistake to think that O'Donnell's potential collapse is a sign that evangelicals are done politically. If O'Donnell does lose, her defeat can even be understood as the first step in evangelicals' political rehabilitation. Here are four reasons to think they'll be back:
Because Jerry Falwell has left the scene. Before his death in 2008, the erstwhile frontman for the Moral Majority repeatedly outdid himself with outlandishly backward statements about the liberal threat. The audience for his pronouncements about Tinky Winky's sexuality and the ACLU's responsibility for 9/11 were his most deeply dyed supporters (and direct-mail contributors). But for ordinary Americans, he represented evangelical America. With him gone, the Christian world lacks a push-button, cable talk-show crank to reinforce the caricature of evangelicals as paranoid rubes.
Falwell's passing, in fact, began an across-the-spectrum departure of evangelical leadership. Dr. James Dobson, the formidable founder of Focus on the Family, has retired; the Rev. Rick Warren has retreated quietly to Orange County after giving the invocation at President Obama's inaugural; the pioneering moderates of the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik and Ted Haggard, were both forced to resign in decidedly different scandals, just as they had begun a campaign to reshape evangelicals' thinking on conservative third-rail topics like climate change.
The vacuum at the top has provided a quiet time for evangelicals to regroup after the hard-charging Bush years, and space for the next generation of leaders to build constituencies. The heroes of younger evangelicals are people like the publicity-shy poverty activist Shane Claiborne and Louis Giglio, whose stadium-filling Passion Conferences are designed bring college kids to worship. These leaders advocate service over voter drives, and rediscovering piety within the evangelical community before bringing it to outsiders.
Because of Christian rock. More than three decades ago, record executives in Nashville set out to tame the devil's music with morally acceptable lyrics and a softer sound, for commercial gain and in hopes of giving Christian teens a wholesome alternative to radio rock. Sound like the plot of "Dreamgirls"? The sequel is just as reminiscent: as Christian kids adopted rock's slouchy clothes, grungy hair and zoned-out manner, they also imbibed rock's traditional themes of tolerance and transcendent love, mixed with alienation from the surrounding society. (Themes already hard-wired, to be sure, into Christian ethics and evangelical experience.) These days, the typical Christian 20-something dude sports a ski cap and chin spinach while hugging a guitar. The cause that rouses him is not abortion but clean water for Africa, or ending international sex-trafficking.
Other factors -- media stereotypes of hard-core Christians, certainly, and the failure of their elders to achieve their aims through politics -- contributed to the "cooling" of Christianity. But Christian rappers and punkers helped create a youth consciousness, turning their fans into a disorganized but determined social force. This is, apparently, what rock does.
What rock didn't do is make evangelicals liberals. Though many Christians have homosexual friends, they resent the expansion of gay rights as government-imposed morality. They are staunchly pro-life, and believe that trust in Jesus is the sole path to heaven. But in their moral outlook, young evangelicals, in the words of one Christian academic, "are interested in narrative"; they are less likely to condemn another person for transgressing an abstract moral principle.
Because Evangelicals can't succeed alone. What this has to do with electoral strategies is simple: The next generation of Christian politicians will be less prone than O'Donnell to undercutting. They will insist less on differences and more on what they share with the rest of America. Like the born-again George W. Bush, who talked like a good ol' boy and was put forward as a GOP establishment scion, their religion will still shape them but it won't be first thing we know about them. Their goals may even look more like liberals' social-justice goals. Whenever evangelicals have captured the national agenda, from abolition to compassionate conservatism, they have done it by convincing mainstream hearts and minds of the rightness of their cause.
Evangelicals succeed this way because, no matter how much coastal elites fear a government takeover by the likes of Christine O'Donnell or her political godmother, Sarah Palin, there are not enough hard-core evangelicals to get to power on their own.
Because they've done it before. Evangelicals in American politics have long followed a rhythm of rising influence, mainstream rejection and rehabilitation. Most recently, after a generation in political exile, Southern evangelicals shook off the taint of racism (thanks to the enforcement of civil rights after 1964) and retooled their gospel message as family values. "Stripped of racist overtones," wrote evangelical historian Mark Noll in his 2008 book, "God and Race in American Politics," "southern evangelical religion -- the preaching, the piety, the sensibilities, and above all the music -- became much easier to export throughout the country." Falwell wasn't the only benefactor of this makeover. Along with figures like Pat Robertson and Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, Noll cites "even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton."
Christine O'Donnell likely won't join this list. She appears to have been sunk by her flubbability, her proximity to the D.C media hive, and her financial history, but also by practicing a polarizing style of faith-based politics while Christians are already on their way to a new evangelical politics.