Pandering to Evangelicals in Pop Culture and Politics

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Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales, gives an account of why he thinks The Nativity Story bombed. Key quote:

No intrigue about the artistic vision, combined with no intrigue about the subject matter, leaves a movie with very little to stand on except, "Hey Christians! Please come see our movie about your savior! We made it just for you!" And that pitch, as Hollywood is about to learn, will only get you so far.

In some ways, this is another example of what we regularly see in politics. The leadership of the GOP is much better at coming up with policy proposals that evangelicals will accept. There's also such a clear sense of a lack of genuineness coming from many on the left who try to come off as religiously sensitive but just end up appearing religiously ignorant. Howard Dean and John Kerry don't come across as a genuine Christian to most evangelicals, but neither should Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani. Most importantly, there's always the worry that evangelicals' concerns aren't at the heart of any candidate's views, and attempts to satisfy evangelicals will then just amount to vote-grabbing with no real concern for those issues.

I don't for a minute think we should vote for people based on their religious views. I'm not a big supporter of Mormon theology, but I think Mitt Romney might be the best choice for the GOP nomination for president for 2008. I couldn't do that if I voted based on theology. At the same time, I do think evangelical voters want someone who reflects their basic moral positions on certain issues. The question is which issues those should be.

I think abortion rightly belongs at the top of the list (including some related issues perhaps, though perhaps not all), but I think gay marriage doesn't come close to having the same importance. Most conservative evangelicals disagree with me on this, at least judging by their rhetoric about the whole of Western civilization standing or falling on this one issue. The select evangelical political leaders who have become known as the religious right have attracted the evangelical vote basically with those two issues. I really prefer not to have to vote for a pro-choice candidate if there is a pro-life candidate, at least for positions where it makes a difference. But sometimes the candidates don't differ all that much, and sometimes enough other issues will outweigh that (but it does take a lot of other very important issues to outweigh that for me).

I think what's happened since the 1980 presidential election is that politicians in the Republican party have developed a strategy for getting evangelical votes that has up to now largely worked well enough to continue it. Time will tell if 2006 is the transition to a new period or whether the evangelical vote will largely remain with the GOP. I suspect the latter, because abortion and gay marriage have become accepted as the values issues for evangelicals. But whether evangelicals will continue to support the Republican Party or not, I think it's become standardly accepted that evangelicals should. I think the GOP has come to rely on that. I also think many in the party have come to rely on evangelicals mainly just for the votes. This is so among closet secularists who talk the God talk but aren't serious about it in their daily lives and among pragmatists who have no interest in religion but agree with religious people on enough issues to give in on them enough to work as a team. I suspect many of the movers and shakers within the party are from these two groups.

This is similar to how the leadership of the Democratic Party relies on black votes just for the votes without any indication that they really are moved by the main concerns of black voters. I've blogged about this before. It's a talk-the-talk move, and it's basically just pandering for the sake of getting votes. There is some importance to pragmatism. The pro-life community ought to shut up and deal with it when a president who has little power to change things with abortion doesn't do more. It just makes them look stupid when they complain that he and Congress are not doing enough when they manage to spend as much effort as they did to pass a ban on partial-birth abortions only to have the courts overturn it. Do you want them to try for things they have even fewer votes for?

So I say there's some importance for pragmatism given the limits of what certain people in certain positions can do. But at the same time I think evangelicals are being played to some degree by the GOP. I think the Democrats try to do the same thing, and they're more blatant and blundering about it, but that doesn't mean Republicans don't do it. So is it a surprise that the entertainment industry tries to do the same thing when they see things they would have predicted to bomb doing really well (e.g. The Passion of the Christ and The Purpose-Driven Life)?

I think it tells you something about NBC's decision-makers that they would commit to playing an overtly Christian entertainment product without any information about what it was like or why people like it so much, only to find out that they would need to remove key elements of the show to meet their religious distancing standards, thus offending many viewers. I find it very interesting that over time they silently and unobtrusively stopped requesting edits from very explicit Veggie Tales episodes once they realized that the audience for this stuff didn't include the very vocal minority who might get offended at such things but did include a normally quiet but now vocal fanbase who didn't want a good thing cut to pieces.

I think there are two things that seem most obvious to me about all this. (1) In the political and entertainment spheres we have people in charge who want to rely on evangelicals for votes and purchases, respectively, and yet there's great ignorance among those very people of what drives evangelicals. (2) At the same time, there's a limit to how much evangelicals will take of this kind of thing, or at the very least there are some restrictions on when it will work. It clearly did not work when Howard Dean tried to get evangelicals on board with his campaign by telling them that his favorite New Testament book was Job and then going off about how he accepted some fairly liberal academic views on the integrity of the book, ones many critical scholars today don't even accept as valid in terms of how Christians should interpret the book.

I also think several Republican politicians running for president need to be really careful on this score. At one point (several others have entered the race since then), almost the only candidate with one wife was the Mormon, who doesn't seem to be doing well in South Carolina right now. I think it's because people are worried that he's become pro-life and anti-gay marriage suddenly in order to appeal to conservatives (although there's also the worry that it's just lunatic paranoia about the idea of a Mormon president). Rudy Giuliani has significant policy differences with conservative evangelicals, and he and Newt Gingrich both (among others) have issues with past affairs leading to divorce. If they start acting like Howard Dean and John Kerry did, evangelicals aren't going to stick with them. I don't think evangelicals have been offended by The Nativity Story. Something else is going on there. But I think the entertainment industry also ought to learn more about evangelicals before trying to capitalize on them, as the Veggie Tales case shows. NBC seems to have learned their lesson at least.

Update: for more on the Veggie Tales saga with NBC (along with the concurrent issue of Madonna's singing while hanging on a cross), see Phil's initial post here, this GetReligion post by Terry Mattingly and his followup, and Ben Witherington's take on it.


I do not know if I was "offended" by The Nativity Story, or even disappointed. I went because my Catholic MIL who lives with me, and my wife, wanted to go and make it a family night out.

The family night out was good and overall I enjoyed he movie. However, Mary had this "weened on a pickle" look the whole movie; and, of course, the wise men showed up at the manger - and the family had to run off to Egypt with a newborn.

Certainly, if they want me to really get fired up over a biblical movie they probably ought to get the story, well, biblical.

You may be underestimating how much evangelicals are tired of being pandered to. I am not sure we are going to be a reliable voting block for anyone anymore.

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