In 1992, California Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn, a favorite of Evangelical Christians, was in a dead heat with then Congresswoman Barbara Boxer in a race for the U.S. Senate. Herschensohn ended up losing the race by three points after it was revealed the weekend before the election that he had attended strip clubs and bought girlie magazines at a local newsstand, a revelation that likely depressed Christian turnout.
In 2000, accusations that George W. Bush was once arrested for drunk driving similarly came to light the weekend before the presidential election, news that is also believed to have depressed turnout among this group, possibly handing Al Gore the popular vote.
Scaring Evangelical Christians at election time has become something of a pastime for some political operatives -- and while it has worked in the past, whether it will work in '06 is a big question mark. Because after nearly a quarter century in the rough and tumble world of politics, Evangelical Christians have become increasingly sophisticated in their responses to popular culture.
And the trend isn't limited to politics.
In 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ, a film that portrayed Jesus Christ in a manner that many Christians considered blasphemous, was met with protest and boycotts by many Christian groups, which only increased the film's notoriety and box office receipts. Since then, not a few filmmakers have attempted to lure the Christian community into launching boycotts and loud protests in the hopes that such protests would lift otherwise forgettable films to box office glory. Two recent examples, however, have highlighted an increasingly sophisticated Christian response.
Had The Da Vinci Code been released a decade or more ago, it's likely that it would have been met by thunderous protests from the cultural right. Instead, Evangelicals, sometimes to the chagrin of their Catholic friends, mostly laid low, turning the volume down on any vocal opposition, staying away from the box office or encouraging one another to attend the weekend's other film fare, all the while preparing books, tracts, DVDs and other materials that were directed at those outside the faith who might watch the film and have questions about what they saw that might spark important spiritual conversation.
Similarly, though the film's producers actively sought out Christian groups by sending out screeners to Evangelical Christian leaders, perhaps hoping to draw a protest, the film "Saved," which depicted life inside the walls of a Christian high school in a less than flattering light, was actively and intentionally ignored by nearly all Christian leaders and subsequently bombed at the box office, despite critical acclaim.
The question that is likely to be answered in the next three weeks is whether the Foley scandal will be the political equivalent of The Last Temptation Of Christ or Saved. Have Evangelical and “Born-Again” Christians, a group Gallup numbers as 45 percent of the population, matured to the point where they can hold their noses and vote for the party of Foley because it is closer to their values? Or will they stay home on Election Day and hand the House and Senate to the Democrats?
Whatever the outcome, it will also be an early bellwether of whether Evangelicals have the political maturity to vote for a candidate for president like Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who may share their political ideology but not their religious doctrines. Should the Methodist Sen. Hillary Clinton face the Mormon Romney, Evangelicals will be forced to decide whether their voting will be guided by doctrine or public policy.
For the better part of a century, movies and politics were widely considered to be evil by millions of Evangelical Christian Americans, who stayed away from both the ballot box and the box office, only to find that neither reflected their values. Their attempts to continue the process of rejoining and having an effect on the mainstream of American political life will largely depend on how they respond to the inevitable October Surprise.
Mark Joseph is the author of Faith, God & Rock 'n' Roll and the editor of Pop Goes Religion. He has worked in development and marketing on such films as The Chronicles of Narnia, Holes Because of Winn-Dixie and others and produced the rock soundtrack for The Passion Of The Christ.
Mark Joseph is a film producer and marketing expert who has worked on the development and marketing of 25 films. His most recent book is The Lion, The Professor & The Movies: Narnia's Journey To The Big Screen.