Thirty years ago, almost to the week, NEWSWEEK published a cover story calling 1976 "the year of the evangelical." In the presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter's born-again faith was bringing new attention to theologically conservative Christians. At the time, evangelical political engagement was rarer than it is now, partly because of an old religious tradition that eschewed the pursuit of temporal power. "Put not thy trust in princes," the Psalmist had said, and, much later, Jesus told Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world."
In the middle of the 1970s, however, many American evangelicals decided the world required their attention. In 1965, after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., Jerry Falwell advised ministers to stay away from civil-rights marches, but he soon came to see things differently. "I preached in my early ministry that involvement should be shunned, and urged the pastors not to march, just to preach the Gospel, because that is what I was taught in an evangelical college," Falwell told me in an interview last summer. "It was only after the early '60s, with the court rulings outlawing voluntary Bible reading and school prayer, and [then] Roe v. Wade, that I became convinced that my position was now wrong ... and I did an about-face and spent the last 30 years forming the religious right."
After Carter helped make "evangelical" a mainstream term, the movement Falwell was talking about accelerated with Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. But for many Americans, the presidency of George W. Bush has generated the most sustained fears of theocracy, as though the White House were plotting to plant Gideon Bibles in every home.
What's the truth? In a cold-eyed survey, Debra Rosenberg reports on what conservative Christians have gotten for their votes, from abortion rights to federal judgeships. The verdict, as you will see, is mixed--findings that may surprise those on both ends of the political spectrum.
There are other new forces at work, too, among the nearly one third of American adults who, according to the NEWSWEEK Poll, call themselves evangelical Christians. As Lisa Miller reports, the traditional religious right is being threatened by emerging tensions between those who emphasize sexual morality and those who are looking more to poverty and global health.
The politics of Jesus is, naturally, a complicated thing, and there is always a risk when either liberal or conservative Christians begin to think that their answer to the question "What would Jesus do?" is the only answer. Self-righteousness can be the enemy of the good, whatever our faith, whatever our doubts.
Faith and doubt inform two important pieces in the Special Report. One, by former Bush speechwriter and adviser Michael Gerson, lays out a new, broader vision for conservative Christians. To offer a radically different view, we invited Sam Harris, an atheist who is the author of "Letter to a Christian Nation" and "The End of Faith," to offer his perspective on mixing politics and religion. I suspect many of you will find much to argue with in both pieces.
In 1983, three years after defeating Carter, President Reagan delivered a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando. The speechwriter's first draft was on the harsh side, and as Reagan edited the remarks, he added the following in his small, neat handwriting: "The commandment given us is clear & simple--'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself'." It is indeed clear, but hardly simple, and how well we fulfill that injunction, believer or no, is perhaps the most consequential question of our time, or any time.