The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Why is the Religious Vote Getting Smaller?

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Mark J. Rozell, writing in USA Today (September 22, 2004), claims that more Christian conservatives voted for Bob Dole in 1996 than voted for George Bush in 2000. He attributes this voting downturn to the vanishing influence of the Christian Coalition. He has the tail wagging the dog. I believe that the major decline in voter strength among evangelicals is the result of eschatology, the belief of millions of Christians that we are living in the last days. Evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, Tim LaHaye, whose wife’s organization, Concerned Women of America, is politically engaged, and Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, have been giving mixed signals. They teach that the world cannot be reformed while they try to rally their troops to reform the world that cannot be reformed. John MacArthur, an ardent end-time advocate is more consistent: “‘Reclaiming’ the culture is a pointless, futile exercise. I am convinced we are living in a post-Christian society—a civilization that exists under God’s judgment.”[1] MacArthur, who has a large evangelical following, has no interest in politics.[2]

For more than 50 years, from 1925 (the Scopes Trial) to 1976 (the Born-Again candidacy of Jimmy Carter), evangelicals remained in a self-induced political coma. It took Roe v. Wade, the disappointment of Carter’s presidency, and attacks on churches and Christian schools to revive them politically.[3] Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Christians had rediscovered their evangelical activist roots and their nation’s Christian history, but it was a family tree with weak branches. Any setback demoralized a sizable number of Christians who did not know how to handle political failure. God was on their side, but in the face of small political gains, Christian leaders began to question their involvement in the process. Any excuse not to be involved would be embraced, and a renewed interest in end-time speculation gave them a biblical reason to drop out and retreat to the cool serenity of the sanctuary. “Let’s shut the door and wait for the rapture.”

But for a brief period of time, those familiar with prophetic speculation and their specific dates for the rapture began to question the end-time scenario outlined by prophecy writers like Hal Lindsey and Chuck Smith, both of whom saw 1981–1988 as key prophetic years. When their predictions failed to materialize, many Christians re-engaged socially and politically. But not everyone saw this as a good thing. In 1988, Dave Hunt wrote the following in his Whatever Happened to Heaven?:

During the 1970s when The Late Great Planet Earth was outselling everything, the rapture was the hot topic. Pastors preached about heaven, and Christians eagerly anticipated being taken up at any moment to meet their Lord in the air. When Christ didn’t return and the 40 years since the establishment of a new Israel expired without the fulfillment of prophesied events, disillusionment began to set in. Today, a growing number of Christians are exchanging the hope for the rapture for a new hope . . . that Christians can clean up society and elect enough of their candidates to political office to make this world a “heaven on earth.”[4]

And just when we thought we could say “good riddance to the rapture,” Tyndale published the first Left Behind novel in 1995 and captured a new generation of prophetic neophytes who had no memory of the failed predictions of Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (1970) and Chuck Smith’s Future Survival.[5] Like the generation before them, and the generation before them, and the generation before them, the prophetic newbies reading Left Behind believe they are living in the “last days.” If this is so, why bother with politics?

This brings us to the 1996 election. The remnants of work done by the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition were still having an impact in this election. But it was the election of Bill Clinton, little progress on the abortion issue, and capitulation to the homosexual lobby by Democrats and Republicans that left Christian conservatives wondering if politics was worth the effort. This was expressed rather weakly in Blinded By Might, written by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, former Moral Majority spokesmen who concluded early in the 1990s that politics was being overemphasized by Christians. Since the world had not changed after ten years of Christian activism, it was time to cut our losses and get back to the real work of the church. Thomas became a commentator for FOX News, and Dobson retreated to the pastorate in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I believe that their quietist political views were colored by their end-time views. Thomas, writing during the first Gulf War, speculated that Armageddon was near. In his 1990 article,[6] he resurrected the stinking corpse of Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and quoted profusely from John Walvoord’s revised and discredited Armageddon and the Middle East Crisis which hinted that the end was just around the corner, just like he had done in the 1974 first edition of the book.

But it was the publication of the Left Behind series that focused evangelical eyes on the imminency of the end once again. The first book hit stores just before the start of the 1996 election and therefore had little impact on evangelical voter turnout. By the 2000 election, Left Behind had its unintended leavening effect on evangelical politics: Stay home and wait to be rapture. The end is coming, and it’s closer than ever before! All the prophetic ducks are lining up.

So while Mark Rozell is right in seeing a decline in evangelical voting strength, in my opinion, he is wrong in explaining why. Since the Christian Coalition, like the Moral Majority before it, was made up mostly of rapture-believing evangelicals, the force of Left Behind could not help but have a negative impact on political involvement.

For further study of the topics discussed in this article, see Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness, End Times Fiction, and The Christian and the Law: Exposing the Church’s Self-Imposed Half-Century of Exile, and Francis X. Gumerlock’s The Day and the Hour.

Endnotes:

[1] John F. MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience: Drawing the Line in a No-Fault, Guilt-Free World (Dallas, TX: Word, 1994), 12.
[2] John MacArthur, Why Government Can’t Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (Nashville: Word, 2000).
[3] For a study of this time period and its significance, see Gary DeMar’s “The Christian and the Law: Exposing the Church’s Self-Imposed Half-Century of Exile.”
[4] Dave Hunt, Whatever Happened to Heaven? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1988), back cover copy. See chapter 3: “The Late Great Rapture Theory?”
[5] “We’re the generation that saw the fig tree bud forth, as Israel became a nation again in 1948. As a rule, a generation in the Bible lasts 40 years. The children of Israel journeyed in the wilderness for 40 years until that generation died. Forty years after 1948 would bring us to 1988. There’s a 7-year prophetic period when God will again deal with the nation of Israel. I cannot see the Church as being upon the earth during that period. I’m firmly convinced that the Lord will take His Church out of the world before he begins the final work with Israel.” (Chuck Smith, Future Survival [Costa Mesa: CA: The Word for Today, (1978) 1980], 17, 19). Smith follows the progress of prophecy outlined by Lindsey in his Late Great Planet Earth.
[6] Cal Thomas, “Time for Armageddon?” It’s always with a question mark. This allows him to speculate without being labeled a date setter.

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