Alan Wolfe is a TNR contributing editor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
I teach at a Catholic university. I study and write about evangelical Protestants. I have no religious convictions of my own. This bothers people who insist that if you are not yourself religious you cannot possibly "get" religion. I leave it to others to decide whether my lack of faith helps or hinders my capacity to understand the subject. But I do know one thing. Because of where I teach and who I study, I have come across some remarkable people I otherwise would never have met.
Familiar with the Catholic tradition, I cannot say I am surprised to meet learned Catholics with a deeply honed sense of social justice. But I have been taken aback by how many evangelicals to whom I have spoken who think deeply about the obligations we human beings have toward each other, take seriously a command to lead lives of good purpose, and resist having their faith corrupted by the temptations of money and power. Megachurches and Christian colleges and seminaries have more than their share of people who love God and want to make the world a better place.
Sarah Palin's speech last night was rapturously received by the delegates to the Republican convention, most of whom are conservative Christians. But just because most Republicans are conservative Christians does not mean that all conservative Christians are Republican. I have the feeling that Palin's speech will not wear well among many of the primarily younger evangelicals I have come to know.
To be sure, Palin's personal story will resonate with them, especially the story of Trig. (At one evangelical event in Atlanta I attended, I was bowled over by the parents of a quadriplegic child to whom they had clearly devoted their lives; I do not think I have the same level of devotion within me). But three aspects of Palin's speech are likely to bother them.
Evangelicals are becoming increasingly persuaded that Christians are under an injunction to preserve and protect the natural environment bequeathed to us by God. They will not be attracted to destroying the beauty of Alaska to fill our all-too- human urge to drive cars. Christians are from time to time called on to sacrifice for their beliefs, and if we have to cut back our energy consumption to protect God's gift, that is as worthy a sacrifice as there is. Palin rhetorically called for clean energy but her words lacked conviction, especially when compared to her calls to drill and drill some more. This will be noticed.
Palin's speech, secondly, was too partisan to be easily swallowed by younger, post-partisan, evangelicals. These are people who disagree with Barack Obama's position on abortion but respect him as a Christian. Palin's over-the-top sarcasm toward Obama will not play well with them, especially her implicit questioning of his patriotism. To the extent that these younger evangelicals are political, they look for a politics of elevation. The whole tone of last night's convention will prove to be a bit too sour. You do not call for change and adhere to the Rove-Schmitt style of attack.
Finally, and most importantly, Palin did not speak to the powerful sense emerging among evangelicals that all Christians, and not just Catholics, should do their best to insure social justice in this world. On the contrary, Palin mocked Obama's service as a community organizer, an odd thing to do given that so many community organizers are inspired by their religious convictions. Promising to cut taxes appeals to country-club Republicans. It is not nearly as resonant a theme to those who understand that the programs financed by taxes help the neediest and most dependent. If Palin said one word about how to make this world a fairer place or indicated at any point how to realize the common good, I did not hear it.
This is the moment for Sarah Palin to have her day. But great speeches are meant to be digested over long periods. This is not one that future generations of evangelicals will turn to for inspiration.