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Can an evangelical, progressive Democrat succeed in Florida?

ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS) The jury is out on whether Chris King is political unicorn, an oddity, or the answer to the Democrats’ prayers.

Chris King, left, and Bishop Allen T.D. Wiggins interact during a fundraiser in Orlando, Fla., on May 10, 2017.  Photo courtesy of Sarah M. Brown

ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS) A few days after the Pulse nightclub shootings, in which most of the 49 patrons who were killed were gay and Latino, a local businessman and active Christian layman contributed a guest column to the Orlando Sentinel titled “Christian to LGBTs: We are sorry.”

“I believe one source of hope may come from the Christian church, an institution I have loved and been a part of since I was a little boy,” wrote Chris King. “Historically, I see a church that has often gotten it wrong — really wrong — when it comes to serving the needs of the LGBTQ community.

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“Our job as Christians, straight or gay, is first to create a society in which the voices of fear, shame and hate do not go unchallenged.”

King is no latecomer on this issue. His views and his deep commitment to the LGBTQ community were shaped by his gay older brother’s suicide in the 1990s, an event that shook his family.

Florida gubernatorial candidate Chris King. Photo courtesy of Chris King

King’s sentiments were not unique, even for straight white believers like himself. What is unique is that they came from a candidate for governor of Florida who is running as both an evangelical Christian and a progressive Democrat.

The 38-year-old fits the classic profile of an evangelical whose political ambitions are fueled by his faith. He was raised in a congregation that left the Presbyterian Church (USA) for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He credits his prominent role in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes with helping him win election after election for high school student government. As a teenager, he had a transformative experience at a Christian leadership summer camp in Georgia.

“I was inspired to live in a way that was not just for me but was glorifying my God,” he recalled.

While a Harvard undergraduate, he claimed that support from a group affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ cost him a close student election.

After graduating from the University of Florida Law School, he joined a nondenominational evangelical church, where he is now an elder. His wife, Kristen, his high school sweetheart, appears regularly on a daily Christian television show, “Welcome Home,” hosted by her mother. The program’s mission is “to point the way to a better life in Christ,” according to its website.

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Although it makes some of his allies and campaign staff anxious, King has not been bashful discussing the role faith has played in shaping his life on the campaign trail.

As a lifelong believer, he says at campaign gatherings, “Faith has been a sustaining part of my life.” (He studiously avoids the term “evangelical,” implicitly acknowledging its negative baggage among many in his party’s base.)

King is running mainly on the basis of his success as a private-sector entrepreneur rehabilitating affordable housing. His family company says it tithes its profits.

Tall and handsome, with an incandescent smile, he supports a variety of issues:

  • Raising the state’s minimum wage.
  • Instituting “common sense” gun control.
  • Legalizing medical marijuana.
  • Welcoming Syrian and other refugees.
  • Accepting federal Obamacare Medicaid subsidies for the working poor.

He opposes a raft of other issues, such as the state’s voter ID law as well as capital punishment.

He also opposes both fracking and offshore drilling and pledges to refuse contributions from Florida’s powerful sugar industry, which he refers to derisively as “Big Sugar.”

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Yet unlike most evangelicals, King unequivocally supports abortion rights.

“I think we have an argument we can win,” he said, arguing that he is an electable Democrat in a key swing state.

Is King a political unicorn, an oddity, or the answer to the Democrats’ prayers?

“He’s got the goods,” said Margaret Altman, 63, a lawyer with the federal government. “He has appeal, there’s no question. He’s nice-looking, well-spoken,” and advocates the same issues that she supports.

Democrats around the country are desperate to find a way to eat into the evangelical constituency that elected Donald Trump, if only incrementally. Nowhere is this truer than in big swing states such as Florida, where exit polls reported an even wider margin of white evangelicals, 86-14, voted for Trump than the national average (81-19). Just over 20 percent of Trump’s Florida vote total came from white evangelicals, according to exit polling.

King’s campaign strategists concede his evangelical faith would only be an asset to be emphasized if he wins the nomination. There is considerable debate, inside and outside the campaign, about whether King – or a more experienced, better-known candidate– could attract the votes of white evangelicals in a general election.

Shaving the margin of defeat among white evangelicals, in swing states like Florida and nationally, could be the difference between victory and defeat.

It’s highly unlikely Democrats will be able to rebrand themselves as the Party of God, but by rejecting candidates who are strong in their faith they are leaving money – and votes – on the table.

“In close elections, being friendly to religion and religious people would change the outcomes,” said Jim Wallis, the nation’s best-known liberal evangelical. These include voters who oppose abortion but might be attracted to the Democrats’ economic platform, as well as to abortion-rights candidates, although that is the source of fierce debate within the party.

And there is likely to be some secular blowback against candidates like King. But, Wallis added, “If you don’t take the concerns of religious people seriously, you lose elections.”

But even among King’s admirers in Central Florida’s religious community – and there are many – white evangelical leaders are doubtful about his political appeal.

The Rev. Jim Henry

The Rev. Jim Henry, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, counts himself among the skeptics.

“It seems like it would be hard for a practicing evangelical to vote for a Democrat,” said Henry, who now pastors the Downtown Baptist Church in Orlando. “couldn’t do it.”

Yet at the same time, Henry thinks an attractive Democrat with evangelical credentials could win the support of as much as 30 percent of white evangelicals, including those who are now, in his words, “wobbly” supporters of the GOP.

Henry compares King’s charisma with that of a young Bill Clinton, and is impressed with the young man.

“I like him personally. He’s very polished, polite, carries himself well, he speaks well. If he gets through the primary he’ll be a formidable candidate for the Democrats. … He has stood up for the faith. I think evangelicals will be impressed with that.”

But King’s biggest barrier with a majority of evangelicals will be his support for reproductive choice.

“Abortion is the litmus test,” Henry said. “That’s a line in the sand.”

The Democratic primary is not until August 2018 and the field is already crowded. At this early point in the race, King – making his first run at public office – is both a dark horse and a long shot. However, he has raised more than $2 million so far – half his own money.

Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, sees hope for King’s candidacy, if a faint one.

“The Democratic Party is often perceived as anti-Christian,” he said. “Some in the base of the Democratic Party are not anti-Christian, but are very uncomfortable with evangelical Christianity.”

Regardless, King’s candidacy raises another key question for Democrats in the Sunbelt and the heartland: In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, can a party dominated by devout secularists accept an evangelical Christian, even one who is also ideologically center-left?

“I’m the case study,” King acknowledges, “of whether faith is a deal killer in the modern Democratic Party.”

(Mark I. Pinsky is author of “A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed”)

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