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Pundits who have heralded the rise of evangelical, red-state, "values" voters may awake one morning to find a large chunk of those voters missing—and not because the pundits were left behind.

Analysts who say they can predict voting patterns simply by knowing where people stand on "God, guns, and gays" will discover their stereotype is badly overdrawn. Contemporary wisdom overestimates the evangelical bloc by assuming much too strong a link between what people say they believe and what they do. Neither fervent belief in God nor biblical literalism automatically translates into moral or political conservatism.

For the past two years, I've been interviewing people who sell in Indiana's flea markets. Most of the flea market dealers have a deep, unshakeable belief in God. The dealers are also biblical literalists, if by that we mean that they believe Adam and Eve were historical figures and that Jesus was born of a virgin and raised bodily from the dead. But they don't refer to themselves as born again, are ambivalent about both gay marriage and abortion, and distrust churches almost as much as they distrust government and big business. They are no more likely to vote Republican than Democrat. Only one in six claims the label "liberal" or "conservative"; even fewer express a party preference.

Flea market dealers are a relatively small group, but they offer a window onto a much larger cross-section of Bible believers whose ideas are not forged in, or nurtured by, the traditional institutions of evangelicalism. A closer look at the dealers helps us see how institutions like churches, media, and nonprofit organizations link people's ideas to social actions.

My flea market research occurred at the crossing of two distinct paths ...

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October 2006

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