Phil Heimlich didn’t throw a party the night of the primary election. The Republican candidate didn’t gather his volunteers to watch the results come in, toast each other’s hard work, and crack inside jokes one last time as they waited to see how badly they’d lose to the incumbent congressman who props up election conspiracies.
He just went home.
He watched a movie with his kids and checked the vote tally on his phone as the ballots in Ohio’s Eighth Congressional District were counted.
His defeat didn’t surprise him. That didn’t make it taste less bitter.
“The problem, frankly, is that most evangelicals are on the wrong side,” Heimlich told CT.
Heimlich, a former Cincinnati city councilman and the son of the doctor who invented the Heimlich maneuver, was once a proud representative of the Religious Right. He still considers himself a conservative. And he’s still an evangelical. He attends Crossroads, a multisite megachurch.
But he’s not part of the Religious Right anymore.
Heimlich—along with a mostly unorganized group of candidates, activists, and operatives across the country—is straining to establish a religious middle. He likes the phrase “radical middle,” a term he learned from a Vineyard pastor.
Whatever it’s called, these are Christians who want to defend democratic norms against the partisanship that warps people into election deniers. They’re against the polarization that helps politicians win gerrymandered districts but doesn’t prioritize solving problems. They want the country to work. And they’re tired of toxic, trolling, apocalyptic politics.
Heimlich ran on support for Ukraine and the January 6 hearings and lost the May 3 primary by more than 40 points to his Donald Trump–endorsed opponent, Warren Davidson.
“We’re in the minority,” he said.
A lot of the art of politics is finding the right moment. The moral middle doesn’t seem to have found its time yet. But some organizers say they can see it on the horizon, a day coming for a new coalition of religious voters who reject culture-war metaphors and see politics as a way to love their neighbors.
“I believe there’s a massive realignment going on among what I call the deeply committed, Jesus-following, Bible-believing folks who do not embrace the Christian nationalism that has infected so much of the church,” said Joel Searby, an evangelical campaign professional who got out of politics during the Trump years but came back to focus on moral-middle candidates.
At the start of the midterm election cycle, Searby hoped that as many as 12 Republican candidates would seriously challenge some of the most extreme Trump-supporting incumbents. He thought they might draw Democrats and Independents, combine that support with Republicans disgusted by the mob that stormed the US Capitol on January 6, and at least get close in the polls.
Most, like Heimlich, lost badly.
“We’re in the early stages,” Searby said. “People are figuring it out—‘What do I do?’ ‘What do I do next?’”
Congressional races might be too tough, given gerrymandered districts, local party machines, and difficulties reaching disengaged voters. Senate races might present more of an opportunity. Searby has worked with two Independent candidates in statewide races this fall: Evan McMullin, a former Republican running with Democratic support in Utah, and John Wood, a former prosecutor and special counsel to the congressional January 6 committee, running in Missouri.
One of Wood’s backers was former Republican senator John Danforth, who contributed $5 million to a super PAC. He is concerned by campaign ads flirting (and worse) with violence.
“I think the political need is simply to hold the country together, and that means rebuilding the center,” Danforth told CT. “Holding things together is a religious concept—the Hebrew word is shalom. … ‘Love your neighbor’ really is what it is, and politically that means respect and friendship, breaking bread and building community.”
Danforth, who is also ordained in the Episcopal Church, believes six or eight senators in the moral middle could change things. He is encouraged by polling that shows many Americans share his concerns about division.
Sociologist Katie Gaddini cautions that concerns about division will not necessarily push evangelical voters to embrace a new kind of politics. During participant-observer studies of two congregations, she has seen people stop talking about issues. But they didn’t change their minds.
“The concern about division means more people feel an obligation … to back away from discussing anything controversial,” Gaddini said. “They get off Facebook. They don’t talk to anyone in their churches about what they think. That does not change their ideas. That doesn’t change voting patterns.”
Trying to avoid division may actually make things worse, according to Gaddini. Discussing differences can counteract polarization, as people work to build bridges. But when the risk of conflict seems so high that people stop talking, the division hides underneath, waiting to erupt in a moment of crisis.
And if people want politicians who will say the things they can’t, they’ll keep backing people good at sticking it to the other side.
That’s why Michael Wear, an evangelical campaign strategist who works with moderate Democrats, thinks the really troubling issue is not the failures of political leaders but the morality of American voters.
“If voters are satiated by performance—by theatrical performance—that’s the easiest thing for a politician to give them,” Wear said. “Politicians are, at a really important level, responding to the American people. That’s why I’m so insistent the state of our politics reflects the state of our souls.”
Chris Butler, a Chicago pastor and a leader of the And Campaign, found himself trying to explain politics and souls to his young kids after he lost a Democratic primary race for a seat in Congress.
Butler’s staff and volunteers knew he was a long shot. He was a pro-life candidate who talks a lot about his faith in a party that increasingly relies on the votes of religious “nones” and treats abortion access as nonnegotiable orthodoxy. They saw his moment evaporate like a mirage when the weak incumbent dropped out and the field filled with 22 candidates competing for time. Then the Supreme Court decision on abortion made that a defining issue for Democrats in every race.
But his children, all under 10, didn’t know their dad might lose.
“On election night, I realized it never even entered their minds,” said Butler, who came in fifth. “I’m still trying to explain about the politics of division and corruption and how I want to work to counteract that evil, but … it’s not that easy.”
Butler doesn’t know where he’ll be on election night November 8, but he’s hoping to shift his focus for the rest of the campaign cycle to voter registration, voter engagement, and the organization of a radical middle. He’d like to watch the election results with a group of volunteers committed to building up a bloc of voters who don’t see politics as war, but rather as a way to love their neighbors.
He’d like his kids to be there too.
“We have to build,” he said he’ll tell them. “If you don’t have staff and fundraising and support, you can’t win elections. … The most important thing right now is to build.”
Daniel Silliman is news editor for Christianity Today.
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