But many evangelicals, left and right, have been haunted by the belief that their movement failed at a critical moment in American history. As Donald Dayton put it in his 1976 study, “Evangelical Christianity rather consistently opposed currents of the 1960s that demanded social justice and civil rights.” The claim may be exaggerated. The great evangelist Billy Graham was remarkably progressive on matters of race, and major Southern denominations, such as the Baptists and Presbyterians, explicitly supported desegregation. But the weight of the charge is felt, even if the failure was generally more one of passivity than strident opposition. It is a sign of evangelicalism’s active conscience that it remains uneasy.
Hence the Promise Keepers movement of the ’90s, overwhelmingly an evangelical-right phenomenon, was not only a men’s movement but also a movement for racial reconciliation — a facet entirely missed by hysterical secular critics who were obsessed with its gender dimensions to the exclusion of all else. Hence even within theologically conservative denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America one finds strenuous efforts to build biracial congregations and support inner-city ministries and missions. Hence the effort by evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren, in the presidential forum held at his Saddleback Church on Aug. 16, to promote greater civility in the presidential campaign.
Unfortunately for Sen. Obama, the Saddleback forum turned out to be one of his least effective outings, and his stumbling and evasive remarks about abortion — the question of life’s beginning, he said, was “above my pay grade” — brought to a sharp point the dilemma faced in this election by all white evangelicals, left, right and center. It would have been one thing to overlook the record of a moderately pro-choice candidate for the sake of racial progress. But the starkness of Sen. Obama’s position forces upon evangelicals a profoundly unenviable choice.