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Evangelical Christianity and conservative politics don't have to go together

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 1, 2013 12:22 PM

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In the United States, Evangelical Christianity and conservative politics are so intertwined that you’d think the Bible contains a commandment to “vote Republican.” But a recent paper shows that the relationship isn’t a necessary one—and that in a different political climate, Evangelical Christians might even be liberals.

To make this case, Erin McAdams and Justin Earl Lance of Presbyterian College look at survey data on the political views of Evangelicals in the U.S. and Brazil. Both groups hold conservative moral views on issues like homosexuality and abortion, but American Evangelicals are far more economically and politically conservative than their Brazilian counterparts. For example, 96 percent of Brazilian Evangelicals agree with the statement, “The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep,” while only 67 percent of American Evangelicals do.

Why is this? McAdams and Lance work through a number of different explanations, including the possibility that Evangelical Christianity takes a more orthodox form in the U.S. than in Brazil (it doesn’t, they find). Instead, they argue that the politically conservative bent of American Evangelicalism has to due with the particular political dynamics in the two countries. Their conclusion matches closely to an argument made in Ideas in January by James Farney, who compared U.S. and Canadian politics to show that morality doesn’t need to be a conservative issue.

In the United States, the Republican Party has been making a concerted effort to recruit Evangelical voters since the 1980s. Brazil, by contrast, has a multi-party system and it was only in the 2002 presidential election that any one party (the center-left Worker’s Party) began to make targeted appeals to Evangelicals voters. Another major difference between the two countries is the role that moral issues play in national politics. In Brazil, no party advocates legalizing abortion, which neutralizes it as a political issue; in the U.S., by contrast, the Republican Party has won converts to its conservative economic agenda by championing conservative moral views at the same time.

From a ground-level perspective, the political alignment in the U.S. often feels inevitable, as if very religious Americans could only possibly be Republicans, or, for instance, black voters could only possibly be Democrats. This study shows that political allegiances are much more contingent than that. There is nothing in the Gospels that frowns on tax increases—and, in fact, it’s not hard to imagine a political climate in which the Sermon on the Mount is cited as a reason to support the Affordable Care Act.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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