Evangelicals are the swing voters to watch in 2008. At least, that’s the impression one gets from the large number of news articles this group has stirred up this campaign season. It is safe to say, however, that no single demographic-white or black, rich or poor-has drawn as much media attention as evangelicals have in the last year, and probably the last four.


Evangelicals represent about a quarter of the electorate (roughly equivalent to their presence in the general population), and in 2004 Bush owed 36 percent of his victory to them. “This rising political clout of evangelical Christians is not the result of growth in their numbers but rather their increasing cohesiveness as a key element of the Republican party,” the Pew Research Center suggested at the time. The 2004 election was the zenith of a fifteen-year evangelical march toward the right. They loved Bush, who they endorsed as a man of great faith; he seemed to share and support their conservative values, so much so that the term “values voters” has been common ever since.


That is changing now. Congregations around the country are rethinking and redefining what it means to be a “mainstream” evangelical. Journalists, meanwhile, have been busy trying to describe the complicated and subtle transformations taking place, and what they mean to the upcoming election. Between the 2004 presidential race and now, coverage of evangelicals as a key voting bloc hardly paused. In particular, the media have latched onto evidence that evangelicals are breaking from the GOP over issues like the Iraq war and global warming. Gone are the days, some say, of focusing solely on the Christian right’s traditional anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, etc. messages. The old vanguard (personified by men like Pat Robertson and James Dobson) is being marginalized, and a younger generation of evangelical pastors, tired of being against everything, wants to be for something-especially peace or the environment. Journalists have approached the story in a variety of ways, but most have come to the same basic conclusion that evangelicals do not have a clear leadership or, for that matter, sense of identity. Does this amount to a “crack-up,” as veteran New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick recently put it? Yes and no. Journalists, including Kirkpatrick, have consistently reported that evangelical dissatisfaction with Republicans does not necessarily translate into a gain for Democrats, only an opportunity. But if the press mentions one possibility enough, it begins to seem like a certainty.


For evangelicals, the cumulative effect of heavy coverage has been the impression that they’re shifting left. They are not.


“I think there’s some wishful thinking in all of this that evangelicals are becoming more liberal,” said Jim Jewell, a communications officer for the Evangelical Environmental Network, one of the groups that have helped spur a green awakening among the faithful. The current “malaise” with Republicans does not amount to a rapprochement with Democrats, he warned, and journalists should be careful not to mistake the appeal of new messages for the appeal of new messengers, such as Democrats, environmentalists, and the press.


Evangelicals have appeared on at least three cover stories since 2005 in Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times Magazine, not to mention dozens of stories in regional and national newspapers, television, and radio. Reporters have done the legwork, visiting all of the country’s so-called mega-churches, which are growing power sources of modern evangelicalism. They’ve talked to the up-and-coming young pastors that are pushing many of the changes taking place, as well as the older generation of leaders that still resists those changes. Clearly, many disapprove of Bush’s war in Iraq and his reluctance to address climate change; their apprehension about the current selection of GOP presidential candidates is even more emphatic. It is far less certain, however, that the fissures in evangelical society are deep enough to cause a major political realignment.


It’s not that the press has misunderstood this situation, but journalists tend to use language that describes today’s “average” evangelical as more liberal or moving toward the left. Consider, for example, a headline that appeared in The Washington Post last August: “Warming Draws Evangelicals Into Environmentalist Fold.” This probably seems accurate to most Post readers, but many evangelicals do not like it, according to Jewell. Evangelicals don’t want to be part of the “environmentalist fold.” Instead, they want the press to describe the changes happening within their society as something organic and complex, rather than something passive and simple, like the adoption of liberal values.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.