For all the hype about “evangelicals” being a powerful voting block in American elections, there remains a nagging question: What exactly is an evangelical? Religion columnist Terry Mattingly asked proto-evangelical pastor, the Rev. Billy Graham, that same question 20 years ago. “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” was Graham’s response. In 2005, historian D.G. Hart dedicated a book to trying to answer that question, Deconstructing Evangelicals, and ultimately came to the conclusion that neither sociologists or theologians could convincingly answer the question.
So, while they’ll probably resent the comparison, in that sense evangelicals are a bit like pornographers — we know them when we see them. Whenever you find a large crowd of people with arms upraised listening to an uplifting facsimile of rock music, chances are you’re among evangelicals. For the tourists visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this past Saturday, where thousands of people gathered around a stage at the foot of Capitol Hill, it probably took a while to figure out that they were witnessing a worship service, and not a concert.
Such was the scene this weekend at “TheCall,” the latest in a series of regular evangelical gatherings around the country. Originally envisioned as a youthful, co-ed version of Promise Keepers, the revival series is described by organizers as “a divinely initiated, multi-racial, multi -generational, and cross-denominational gathering to corporate prayer and fasting” that “embraces . . . various expressions of the Body of Christ whether Pentecostal or Evangelical.”
Upon arriving on scene, I’ll be, er, darned if I can discern a common thread among the believers present. It is the Breakfast Club of religious gatherings — young, old, black, white, Hispanic, punks, hipsters, jocks, you name it. Christian pop star Eddie James has the crowd bouncing along with his song “Freedom.” James’s hit is really a high-energy chorus in search of a verse. It begins, “I want to lift my hands higher than before” and so the crowd obliges, before crashing into the circular refrain “No more shackles, and no more chains, no more bondage, I am freeeee, come on and lift your hands to the father and say, No more shackles. . . .”
TheCall has held similar gatherings all over the country, so why Washington, D.C., and why now? That was the question I put to Lou Engle, founder and organizer of the Call, earlier this week. Engle has a hushed, gravelly voice that makes him sound like a very cheerful version of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
“It’s the 43rd anniversary month of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, and we are declaring that God has a dream for this nation, and the dream can’t live as long as we are aborting our babies and wounding millions of women who are going through post-abortion trauma,” Engle told National Review Online. “We’re calling the nation, just like they dealt with the issues of slavery and segregation, we have a defining issue that can’t be swept under the rug in these elections.”
Engle doesn’t just want to send a message to political leaders. There’s been a lot of ink-spilled about how evangelicals, traditionally, a core part of the GOP voting base, are turning to the left politically — especially younger evangelicals.
Engle is concerned that abortion isn’t as high a priority among evangelicals as it should be. He was also clear that the fact the TheCall’s D.C. gathering coincided with the presidential forum held by evangelical superstar Rick Warren — where abortion proved to be an important topic of discussion — wasn’t just a happy accident, it was an opportunity to send a message to evangelical leaders, and to politicians.
Evangelicals increasingly express concern over the poor and AIDS. While Engle feels these issues should be championed by the church, those politically correct concerns cannot overshadow the big politically incorrect one: the culture of life. “Some evangelical leaders in the nation are trying so hard to be known for the new things that we’re for that they don’t speak out on foundational issues.”
Engle has no trouble including civil rights among the foundational issues. At a press conference the day before TheCall event in D.C., Engle endorsed the idea of government apologies for atrocities committed against Native Americans, as well as for lynchings and Jim Crow laws. In doing so, he’s speaking a language most liberals would recognize. However, once Engle crosses over into discussing abortion as a civil right, his pointed discussion of the matter isn’t likely to win him any friends among Democrats who’ve sanctioned what he considers to be a great injustice.
“So for instance, Senator Obama says that he wants abortion to be rare, but he has voted, according to Planned Parenthood and NARAL, 100 percent for abortion — both partial-birth abortion and live birth abortion,” Engle said. “I don’t want to be courted by a man’s ‘Christianity’ or his charisma. I want to be courted by his voting record.”
Still, Engle is at pains to explain that he’s not out to score partisan points or elect Republicans, simply rectify what he considers an injustice. Also appearing at Engle’s press conference was Bishop Harry Jackson of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, a leader among black evangelicals. Jackson both echoed Engle’s civil rights rhetoric on abortion, and cautioned that it would be “political suicide” if McCain chose a pro-abortion running mate — a genuine concern, given that many of McCain’s political allies such as Tom Ridge and Joseph Lieberman aren’t pro-life.
Of course, the star of Engle’s Friday press conference was Baptist preacher and former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Though he’s now one of the more well-known GOP leaders in the country, Huckabee shared Engle’s concern that politicians on both the left and the right had “fetal fatigue” and were unwilling to confront abortion.
In the end, wandering around TheCall’s mall gathering, the only thing that outwardly separated the tourists from the participants in the 12-hour devotional was that nearly all TheCall’s attendees were wearing a bright red piece of tape with “LIFE” scrawled on it in black marker. It may not seem like much of a religious or political marker, but in Washington, D.C. this weekend, it was hard to miss.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.