Post-election reporting that 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney got little attention in the news because most journalists thought it wasn’t news. Evangelical support for the GOP has been consistent; even Romney’s Mormonism didn’t put them off. So election analysis approached white evangelicals as it usually has: as religio-political lemmings, all voting Republican for all the same reasons.

Yet where there was once the appearance of a monovocal evangelicalism there is now robust polyphony—what theologian Scot McKnight calls “the biggest change in the evangelical movement at the end of the twentieth century, a new kind of Christian social conscience.” This deserves our attention because most politics does not happen at elections but in between, when policy is negotiated and implemented. Current shifts in evangelical activism have re-routed the flow of evangelical money, time, and energy, and are changing the demands on the US political system. This essay investigating the shift is based on seven years of field research in evangelical books, articles, newsletters, sermons, and blogs, and on interviews with evangelicals, ages 19 to 74, across geographic and demographic groups—from students in Illinois to retired firemen from Mississippi, from former bikers to professors and political consultants (see The New Evangelicals: Expanding The Vision Of The Common Good).

For the purposes of this essay, American evangelicalism is an approach to Protestantism across denominations, its central features including: the search for a renewal of faith toward an “inner” personal relationship with Jesus; the mission to bring others to this sort of personal relationship; the cross as a symbol of not only salvation but also of service to others; individual acceptance of Jesus’ gift of redemption; individualist Bible reading by ordinary men and women; and the priesthood of all believers independent of ecclesiastical or state authorities. It was a progressive movement from the colonial era to World War One. Its emphasis on individual conscience made it anti-elitist, anti-authoritarian, economically populist, and socially activist on behalf of the common man. Twice in the twentieth century, evangelicals turned to the right, the second time in the late 1970s, when they became a central pillar in the modern conservative movement.

But recent trends point to another political transformation within this community—to those evangelicals who have left the right, moving toward an anti-militarist, anti-consumerist focus on poverty relief, environmental protection, and immigration reform, and on coalition-building and more issue-by-issue policy assessment (more Democrat on environment, for instance, and more Republican on abortion). While the religious right remains robust, in 2005 Christianity Today lambasted evangelicals for conflating the gospel with American or Republican policy, writing, “George W. Bush is not Lord… The American flag is not the Cross. The Pledge of Allegiance is not the Creed. ‘God Bless America’ is not Doxology.” In 2006, the Evangelical Environmental Network/Call to Action, launched its “What would Jesus drive?” campaign for greater fuel efficiency. In 2007, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) issued its “Evangelical Declaration against Torture.” Since 2009, the NAE has repeatedly protested against Republican budget cuts for the needy, for instance writing, “this is the wrong place to cut.”

These “new evangelicals,” as Richard Cizik, head of The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, calls them, are neither small in number nor elite. By 2004, devout Christians whose activism differs from that of the religious right came to 24 percent of the US population. Subtract Catholics, and we find that 19 percent or so of devout Protestants do not identify as religious right.

Devout Christians whose activism differs from that of the religious right (% of US population). Source: Assessing a More Prominent ‘Religious Left.’ Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life (June 5, 2008).

Four factors were decisive in this shift. The first is generational, with idealistic younger evangelicals rejecting the in-group-ism and Prosperity Gospel politics of their parents. They are, as then-AP religion writer Eric Gorski found, “even more anti-abortion than their elders” on ethical grounds, “but also keenly interested in the environment and poverty.” Second are cultural changes since the 1960s. Attitudinal shifts—about the environment, global connectedness, and poverty—have proceeded not at the radical fringe but in Middle America, and priorities there, including among evangelicals, have shifted. Third is ethics amid a group that takes ethics seriously. The militarism and torture of the Bush years and the consumerism and in-group-ism of the last forty years prodded many evangelicals to self-examination. In their book, Unchristian, evangelicals David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons title their chapters Hypocritical, Sheltered, Too Political, Judgmental, and Antihomosexual, giving some idea of the self-critique underway. A fourth reason is the de-professionalization of service work. As growing numbers of ordinary Christians began to live and serve among the poor, their priorities moved toward economic justice and environmental protection.

One key feature of “new evangelicals” is their embrace of church-state separation in order to ensure fair government and religious freedom for all, including Muslims. As the Evangelical Manifesto (2008) declares: “Let it be known unequivocally that we are committed to religious liberty for people of all faiths… We are firmly opposed to the imposition of theocracy on our pluralistic society.” This document was signed by over 70 evangelical leaders, including the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson, and Mark Bailey, president of the Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.

A second key feature is self-identification as a critic of government when they believe government to be unjust. This is the “prophetic role” of the church—not to be government but to “speak truth to power.” And it requires party independence. In 2006, Frank Page, then president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, warned, “I have cautioned our denomination to be very careful not to be seen as in lock step with any political party.” The 2008 Manifesto, too, called on evangelicals to distance themselves from party politics, lest “Christians become ‘useful idiots’ for one political party or another.”

A third feature is self-identification as civil society actors (neither state actors nor “bubble communities”) who advocate for their positions through public education, lobbying, coalition-building, and negotiation. Indeed, “new evangelicals” are often engaged more than other citizens in the economic, social, and charitable spheres of American life through the programs they develop. These are run largely by volunteers who also raise much of the programs’ funds. As one Midwestern pastor explained, “If healing the brokenhearted, setting the captives free, and ministering to the poor was Jesus’ job description, then we believe it is ours as well (Interview with the author, May 1, 2009; September 25, 2010).

These programs are not only giving alms, but are also seeking to restructure opportunity—in education, health care and clean air and water. Evangelicals do this first within the church. An example would be the over 200,000 Christians who contribute to a pool that covers members’ medical bills, handling over $12 million in medical expenses a year. Reaching outside the church, evangelicals alter their business practices toward economic justice. An example would be the Pasco, Washington fruit farmer who puts 50-75 percent of her profits into development projects in the US and abroad. For her employees she built a residential community and set up ESL, GED, and computer courses, parenting training, youth programs, counseling services, preschool and elementary school, and a college scholarship program.

“New evangelicals” also use their own monies to redistribute resources in less developed regions. Examples include the educational, substance abuse, homeless, environmental protection, and micro-credit programs that are run not only by large organizations like World Vision, whose micro-credit program supports over 440,000 projects in forty-six developing countries, but by volunteers in local churches. One church in my study spends $1.5 million a year on economic justice and aid programs. Another runs an impressive free health clinic locally and raised $66,000 to build a training center in a Zambian village, plus $100,000 for yet another project.

In their overseas endeavors, these evangelicals are developing a nuanced critique of the “Bibles for bacon” school of evangelizing, where participation in religious activities was a condition of aid. This is unacceptable not least because when Jesus served, he did not ask people “to sign on the bottom line,” according to John Ashmen, head of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (Interview with the author, December 22, 2010). One head of a church overseas mission said, “We tend to everyone—Muslim, Jewish.” If people want to know why his church is digging a well or building a school, he’ll tell them. Perhaps something about his faith will interest them. If not, “I’ve dug thirty foot water wells with guys who didn’t believe what I do, and I love those guys. If God wants to use me to change their belief, that’s fine. If not, then heck, we dug a well” (Interview with the author, May 1, 2009).

“New evangelicals” also oppose anti-gay discrimination in housing, education, and non-religious employment. They note that while some consider homosexuality a sin, a matter between man and God, democracies do not punish people for sins, which after all vary across faiths. Moreover, the state does not rescind civil rights for the commission of other sins, such as heterosexual adultery—why should it then for homosexuality? They note also that judging the sins of others is unchristian.  A joint evangelical-Catholic Washington Post OpEd protesting Uganda’s draconian anti-gay legislation declared, “any effort to persecute people for their sexual orientation or gender identity offends intrinsic human dignity and violates Jesus’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.… The entire Judeo-Christian worldview is built on this unshakable foundation.”

While 74 percent of white evangelicals oppose gay marriage, opposition to gay civil unions is decreasing: at 57 percent in 2009 and dropping; and less than a majority—41 percent—of evangelicals who attend church less than once a week oppose. In 2011, evangelical Belmont University amended its anti-discrimination policy to include homosexuals, and recognized its first gay student organization. That same month, the student newspaper at Westmont College ran an open letter signed by 131 gay and gay-friendly alumni in support of gay students. Alumni at the influential Wheaton College have a Facebook page in support of gay students.

While 60 percent of white evangelicals opposed abortion in 2012, 34 percent believed it should be legal in all or most cases. Noting that 73 percent of US abortions are economically motivated, “new evangelicals” aim to provide accessible, realistic alternatives, including medical, financial, and emotional support during pregnancy along with day care and job training post-partum, where needed. Especially effective programs include pairing a pregnant woman with a local family to serve as her “family” and help out as needed, for instance, driving the child to day care when the new mother’s car has a flat tire so that she can get to work and not lose her job. Midwestern megachurch pastor Greg Boyd explained, “A person could vote for a candidate who is not ‘pro life’ but who will help the economy and the poor. Yet this may be the best way to curb the abortion rate” (Interview with the author, May 4, 2009). “New evangelicals” note that there is no reason why they should not join with others, including feminists, in developing these programs. “I am decidedly pro-life,” southern megachurch pastor Joel Hunter says. “But by working together instead of arguing, both sides can get what they want.”

Though GOP policies are often at odds with “new evangelical” activism, the “new evangelical” vote remains largely Republican in part because of reluctance to back a party that supports legal abortion. In greater part, however, it is a vote for small government. This is a preference that evangelicals came to through doctrine and history, beginning with the Protestant and evangelical emphasis on self-responsible striving for moral uplift. While this originally meant striving toward the divine, striving became a muscle well-exercised and applied to many arenas of life, including the political and economic. Striving was further underscored for dissenting (evangelical) Protestants, who became determinedly self-reliant in order to survive the oppression and marginalization by Europe’s states and state churches. These qualities—a preference for individual and community self-responsibility on one hand, and the dissenter’s suspicion of authorities on the other—interacted synergistically with the rough nature of American settlement, where one could not rely on authorities or the state because there was little of either.

Because of evangelicalism’s formative influence on American culture, these elements remain broadly influential even today. The American political imaginary is one of voluntary associationism and suspicion of central government. In spite of the Great Recession, support for a governmental safety net is down 18 points since 2007. For evangelicals, this is even more the case. If they are generally wary of the state, Obama’s use of government programs to address recent economic crises further inflamed their mistrust. To be sure, the 2008 election saw an uptick in evangelicals supporting the Democratic Party: two evangelical ministers—Joel Hunter and Tony Campolo—helped write the 2008 Democrat party platform; Leah Daughtry, an evangelical minister, served as CEO of the 2008 Democratic National Convention Committee; and evangelical PACs like the Matthew 25 Network were set up to support Obama. Kirbyjon Caldwell, the influential Houston pastor, gave his support to Obama, though he had given the benediction at both of Bush’s presidential inaugurations and presided at the wedding of Bush’s daughter in May, 2008. Wilfredo De Jesús, pastor at New Life Covenant church in Chicago and staunch opponent of abortion and gay marriage, supported a Democrat, Obama, for the first time in his life. But while these gestures of support translated into an increase in evangelicals voting Democrat—a third of white evangelicals under 40; 26 percent of older white evangelicals; 36 percent of the less observant—a mass turn to the Democrats is at present unlikely owing to small-government-ism and opposition to abortion. What raises more serious questions, however, is the 65 percent of evangelicals ages 18-30 who favor more governmental aid to the needy, including Obamacare. These questions may endure, with implications for the political future, as coming-of-age politics has life-long effects.

White evangelicals, because of their small-government-ism, are often seen as un-modern and unequipped to deal with today’s economic and geo-political complexities. It is an ironic view, as their extensive social service work has made many of them sophisticated in their understanding of economic, environmental, medical, and migration issues, including the relations among poverty, soil erosion, rapes of girls out alone searching for potable water, AIDS, and migration. It is also worth noting that evangelicals do not call only for smaller government, but for a more robust civil society; not only for an absence (of central government), but also for our energetic presence.