Christians hear call to widen their focus

Cross purposes

Evangelical Christians are God’s wing of the GOP.

President Bush invites their leaders to the White House. Magazine covers feature their faces. Talk-show hosts put them on the air.

But some leading Christian thinkers are questioning the evangelicals’ priorities. Will partisan politics mute the church’s prophetic voice — the courage, as intellectual Edward Said put it, to speak truth to power? Are evangelicals so focused on abortion and same-sex marriage that they are forgetting Christ’s injunction to care for the sick and minister to the downtrodden?

A number of authors and essayists — both liberal and conservative — now are calling on Christians to form a biblically based, big-picture vision of how America should look.

And they are finding an audience.

God’s Politics,” subtitled “Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It,” by Jim Wallis is No. 8 today on The New York Times nonfiction best seller list. Study groups at churches nationwide are forming to read and discuss the book.

“It’s time to spark a public conversation in this country over what the ‘moral values’ in politics should be — and how broadly and deeply they should be defined,” Wallis writes. “We should hold ourselves and both major political parties accountable to the challenge of the biblical prophet Micah, to ‘do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.’ “

Though Wallis identifies himself as an evangelical, he is widely perceived to be on the “religious left.” Nonetheless, many conservative Christians are expressing sentiments similar to his. For example, Joseph Loconte, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, notes that some Christians have put great stock in expressions of religion, such as public display of the Ten Commandments and the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

“These are the trappings of faith, not the substance of it,” Loconte writes. “They serve as fiery political symbols, but they fail to challenge conscience, forge character or reclaim broken lives.”

Loconte’s essay appears in a new book from the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 45,000 churches with 30 million members. “Toward an Evangelical Public Policy” counsels Christians to take a broad view of politics.

A sizable number — 22 percent — of voters in the 2004 presidential election said they based their ballots on “moral values,” according to exit polls. An overwhelming majority of those, 80 percent, supported Bush. They are generally perceived to be driven by opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

As does Wallis, Tony Campolo, another left-leaning evangelical, says that approach is too narrow.

“If you go to the Bible,” says Campolo, “the defining issue is poverty. . . .When people are running for office, Christians ought to be asking what’s being done for the poor.”

Campolo is an American Baptist minister, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and spiritual adviser to former President Clinton. His book, “Speaking My Mind: The Radical Evangelical Prophet Tackles the Tough Issues Christians Are Afraid to Face,” is enjoying steady sales.

When Jesus describes Judgment Day, he says he will welcome into the kingdom those who have fed the hungry, offered hospitality to the stranger and clothed the naked, Campolo points out. The rest he will damn to eternal fire.

Wallis’ and Campolo’s latest writings are similar to the views in a paper that was adopted unanimously by the board of the National Association of Evangelicals meeting in Atlanta last fall. The document was the focus of discussion at a meeting of the association this month.

The paper, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” encourages evangelicals to use their influence wisely as their political power increases.

“It ought to be precisely religious people who know their highest commitment is to their Lord, not to any political party,” says Ronald Sider, one of the editors of “Toward an Evangelical Public Policy,” which introduces and explains the paper. “It ought to be especially religious people who say, ‘Yes, we did vote for you, but we’re going to be critical of you on this and this and this. . . .’ ”

Evangelicals, says Sider, must take a holistic approach to the needs of the country, looking at poverty, the environment, health care and education as having religious and moral implications.

“A faithful evangelical civic engagement must be committed to a biblically balanced agenda,” he says.

If Christians rely on the state to “lead the charge for faith and virtue,” they will inevitably become disillusioned, says Loconte, the Heritage Foundation fellow.

They will “end up with a watered-down civil religion, or a puffed-up view of government and politics.”

Active in public life

That’s not to say Christians shouldn’t be politically involved.

In fact, they have an obligation to engage in public life that dates back to the Garden of Eden, when God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the Earth, according to the National Association of Evangelicals’ Atlanta declaration.

“We also engage in public life because Jesus is Lord over every area of life,” the paper says. “To restrict our stewardship to the private sphere would be to deny an important part of his dominion and to functionally abandon it to the Evil One. To restrict our political concerns to matters that touch only on the private and the domestic spheres is to deny the all-encompassing Lordship of Jesus.”

Until Jesus returns, the paper says, “the Lord calls the church to speak prophetically to society and work for the renewal and reform of its structures.”

The paper calls on evangelicals to continue to oppose abortion and nurture the traditional two-heterosexual-parent family. But it also says they should work to protect religious freedom, ensure justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable, advance human rights, seek peace, restrain violence and care for “God’s creation.”

“What is certainly clear is that this document is not backing off from a strong commitment to promoting wholesome two-parent families, from defining marriage as all civilizations have defined it throughout recorded history, and from opposing widespread abortion on demand,” says Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action. “But the Bible says God cares about a bunch of issues. They all matter. We will have to make our decisions about candidates based on the whole mix.”

Complementary approaches

To be most effective, evangelicals will need to bring together two approaches to social problems, he says.

Historically, Republicans have emphasized solutions to social problems through personal responsibility, while Democrats have looked at systemic and structural cures, Sider says.

The two approaches are complementary, he says. The faithful must demand accountability from leaders of both parties.

Some evangelicals express worry that by taking a broad approach, conservative Christians will dilute attention to the causes that have mobilized them in recent years.

At a luncheon during the National Association of Evangelicals meeting, Tom Minnery, vice president of the influential Colorado Springs-based ministry Focus on the Family, gave voice to that concern, according to an account by The New York Times. “Do not make this about global warming,” Minnery said. ” . . . The issues of marriage, the issues of pro-life are the issues that define us to this day.”

More than a white issue

It’s not just white evangelicals who must worry about how to balance their faith and their ballots. African-American Christians faced a similar situation when Democrats won their support on civil rights and economic issues, according to Stephen Carter, the Yale law professor whose books include “God’s Name in Vain — The Wrongs and Rights of Religion In Politics.”

“The activists among the black clergy made the decision in the 1960s to become part of the Democratic coalition,” he writes. “With minor exceptions, they and their inheritors have been stuck with that decision ever since.”

Carter says the decision has been “disastrous” for prophetic ministry.

“If you are in the business of endorsing candidates and pushing for their election, you can hardly pretend to stand outside the corridors of power to call the nation to righteousness,” he writes. “You are far more likely to soften the message, reinterpret the Gospels and do what is necessary to retain the status of the insider.”

Too often, Carter says, people begin with politics and try to fit religion in.

Christians, he says, should begin with their faith and figure out how to apply it to politics.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA
Mar. 20, 2005
Gayle White

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 21, 2005.
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