Jewish Journal


October 27, 2008

Evangelical voters and the presidential election


The times they are a-changing. Younger religious voters, even evangelicals, harbor more liberal values than their counterparts in years past. They’re also less tied to the Republican presidential nominee.

Just take a look at Biola University—that name began as Bible Institute of LA, and the school’s student “contract” underlines its conservative foundation. The Los Angeles Times explains:

Biola University has long been a Republican citadel, helping its La Mirada precinct deliver 93% of the vote in each of the last two elections to George W. Bush, the president’s best showing in any Los Angeles County polling area that cast more than 20 ballots. But change has come this year to the 95-acre campus on the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties, and not without turmoil.

For the first time in memory, a Biola College Democrats club has formed, marking campus walls with slogans such as “You are the change you hope for” and “If you want peace in the Middle East, you’re a Democrat.” After GOP groups protested that the content was “offensive,” the posters came down. Joint debate-watching parties with the Republicans were nixed after some political invective was aimed at Democrats at an early gathering.

“For some reason, here on campus they think you can’t be a Christian and a Democrat,” said Biola Democrats president Athena Fleming, 24. “We have to act with the utmost diplomacy.”

This year’s presidential race has been generally polarizing. But political friction on the Biola campus reflects a deeper tension as the onetime Bible school feels its way to the modern ideals of pluralism, while striving to preserve its conservative core values.

Biola today is an accredited university offering advanced degrees and preparing 5,900 students from across the nation for a wide array of secular occupations, from business to archaeology. Minority students now make up 39% of the school’s undergraduate student body of 4,800, and President Barry H. Corey has made social justice and diversity centerpieces of his administration. Students from “mono-cultures” of suburban or rural Christian high schools or home-schooling are encouraged to take an “urban plunge” to study inner-city churches and schools.

At the same time, Biola does not admit nonbelievers, and there is no drinking or dancing allowed on campus. Students agree to abide by what they call “the contract,” prohibiting premarital sex and homosexuality. The college also posts a “doctrinal statement” condemning “abortion on demand.”

Pete Menjares, Biola’s associate provost for diversity leadership, acknowledged that navigating the shoals of modern pluralism has been difficult.

“One of the concerns we have is the level of isolation a number of our students have grown up in,” Menjares said. “Diversity is much more complex than racial diversity. It’s gender diversity and idea diversity. It requires change at a deep level.”

Students, both Republican and Democratic, said they embrace the school’s diversity mission. Still, the Democratic Club’s recent debate-watching party in a Biola classroom began as a lonely vigil by Fleming. Of the few students who showed up, several identified themselves as independents or Libertarians.

OK, so maybe the Times jumped the gun on this story. It isn’t quite the changing-of-the-guard that the headline made it out to be. And you can find outliers in any sample pool. But, anecdotally, many more of my Christian friends are voting for Barack Obama than did for Al Gore or John Kerry. There is no uniform transformation occurring in American evangelicalism, but I have certainly seen and read about shifting priorities across the board.

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