In a succinct, persuasive essay from 2004, E. J. Dionne argued There Is No Catholic VoteAnd Its Important. Dionne recounted this story of Al Smith with his campaign advisors in 1928: Smith was attacked viciously in the nativist and anti-Catholic press. They had, among other things, quoted papal encyclicals, arguing that these pronouncements from Rome were quite inconsistent with American ideals. Smith is reported to have stared across the table at his aides and said: Just tell me one thing: What is an encyclical?Ive been thinking of this story ever since the story broke of that invite-only evangelical meeting to anoint the appropriate presidential candidate. The 150 or so leaders met to hold a kind of consistory (with Texas substituting for the Vatican), complete with multiple ballots. They ultimately decided on Santorum, though not unanimously. And I keep imagining how this news would have resonated at a gathering of evangelicals who read Relevant and attend the Q events, or who follow the preaching of Joel Hunter, Tim Keller, and Samuel Rodriguez. Might they have said, Just tell me one thing: Who are James Dobson and Tony Perkins?Even if evangelicals were to have recognized the names of their self-professed leaders, those leaders still should have known that they have very little power to influence the coveted evangelical vote. Catholic bishops would know this better than anyone, I would think: if a hierarchical Church has little success influencing its members voting practices, how would a free church tradition pull this off?More to the point, the evangelical voting bloc seems to be an illusion. If anything, this is an indicator of evangelicalisms appeal and success. Like Catholicism, evangelicalism has become a completely normal part of American Christianity, to the point that Rick Santorum, a Catholic, was surprisingly listed among the top 25 evangelicals in the country. (Did Joe Lieberman almost make the list?) Evangelicalism became mainstream by adapting to many different parts of American society, emerging in all classes, regions, and races, and in so doing it lost the cohesion of a voting bloc. (One can get a great sense of the shifting landscape vis--vis politics by reading David Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics, among other recent books.)Other stories from last week help to make the point about evangelical diversity. For instance, if Rick Santorum is the evangelicals preferred social conservative (and now the only one left in the race, judging by deeds and not words), how will his negative views on contraception be received by the significant percentage of evangelical Christians that promotes frequent sex with ones spouse? Besides the bizarre sexperimental roof-top sex promoted by Pastor Ed Young and his wife Bathsheba Lisa last week, there was also the release of popular firebrand Mark Driscolls new book about marriage sex. Matthew Lee Anderson assesses the new years offerings: Its too early to call it, but if evangelicals keep their frenetic pace up, 2012 will be the year they self-combust from over-sexual-exposure.How to make sense of all this? Evangelicals are everywhere on the American landscape, which is another way of saying they are nowhere on the map. Their voting bloc cant be influenced because it isnt there. The combination of the Texas meeting plus the Iowa and South Carolina primaries is just our most recent evidence.Update: I was certainly not intending to criticize the pastors wife by my post. Rather, their putting a bed on a roof to promote sex is bound to call to mind David and Bathsheba to a Biblically literate audience. In addition, a pastors call for his congregations couples to have sex every day is, in many circumstances, going to result in an asymmetrical power relationship. The pastor himself said in the interview that when he announced to his congregation the charge to have sex every day, the men of the congregation cheered with a standing ovation.
Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.