Evangelicals Branch Out Politically

A growing movement sees myriad causes beyond abortion and gay marriage. What about helping the poor and global warming?

Answering an evangelical call to arms, Christians will gather in communities across the nation tonight to watch President Bush’s State of the Union address. They will invite local media to listen in as they measure Bush’s policies against the moral values laid out in the Bible.

But don’t expect a lot of applause for the president.

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These “watch parties” are being organized by a small but growing movement of evangelical Christians who no longer want to be defined by gay marriage and abortion. Plumbing the Bible for God’s priorities, they are talking instead about global warming and affordable housing, about fewer tax cuts for the rich and more food stamps for the poor.

“The typical image of evangelicals is that they’re concerned with the sanctity of life, the traditional family and that’s it — they buy the whole Republican agenda when they vote,” said Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, a think tank based in Wynnewood, Pa.

Without giving up their opposition to abortion and gay marriage, “they’re asking, what [else] does God care about?” Sider said.

Citing Jesus’ concern for the most vulnerable, evangelicals last month led a protest against a proposed federal budget that would cut deeply into food stamps, subsidized health insurance and student aid.

The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, has spoken out for clean-air and clean-water policies, arguing that God ordered man to be a good steward of creation. He hears pastors everywhere picking up the theme.

“It’s happening more and more: A Republican hunter from a Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma knows he has a responsibility to the environment,” Haggard said. “The community that drives pickup trucks is also learning to drive scooters.”

It was an evangelical minister, the Rev. Jim Ball, who launched the “What Would Jesus Drive” campaign that made a brief splash promoting hybrid cars in 2003. More recently, Ball and others have been working on a policy statement on global warming.

The most liberal voice in the evangelical movement belongs to the Rev. Jim Wallis, author of the book “God’s Politics.” Wallis heads the advocacy group Sojourners, which is sponsoring the State of the Union parties in 160 communities nationwide. He is not in favor of abortion but opposes criminalizing it; he cannot accept gay marriage but would welcome civil unions.

Mostly, though, he doesn’t like answering questions on those issues. “It’s such a tired conversation,” he said.

When critics ask him how any issue could be more important than the 1 million lives aborted each year, Wallis challenges them to take a broader view of “pro-life” values. He asks them how many children go to sleep hungry each year, how many sicken because their parents can’t afford a doctor, and whether God would approve.

He’s starting to hear some answers he finds encouraging.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, Wallis spent hours in conversation with the Rev. Rick Warren, the author of the mega-bestseller “The Purpose-Driven Life.” Warren recently launched a global anti-poverty campaign with the Rev. Billy Graham.

The National Assn. of Evangelicals, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., is urging its 30 million members to pursue a “biblically balanced agenda” — by fighting poverty as well as pornography, protecting the environment as well as embryos, promoting good government as well as the Gospel.

“I would call it the maturing of American evangelism,” said sociologist Alan Wolfe, who directs the study of religion and public life at Boston College.

Evangelicals emerged as a potent political force in the late 1970s and early ’80s with the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” crusade on issues such as abortion, gay rights and school prayer.

Those campaigns made “evangelical” synonymous with “conservative” in the public eye. In fact, the term has nothing to do with politics. Evangelicals are Christians who have accepted Jesus as their savior (an experience often called being “born again”) and who take the Bible as the word of God, to be faithfully obeyed.

Bush is an evangelical, as are Democratic former Presidents Carter and Clinton.

A decade ago, white evangelicals were fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Today, the group leans heavily Republican. White evangelicals make up 23% of the electorate; in the last election, 78% backed Bush, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The White House holds weekly conference calls with top conservative evangelicals. Many of these leaders focus on preserving the traditional family; when they dip into issues of poverty and justice, they tend to look abroad. (Recent campaigns have included efforts to bring peace to Sudan, slow the spread of AIDS in Africa and improve human rights in North Korea.)

At home, conservative evangelicals tend to argue that the Christian obligation to help the poor is best fulfilled through private charity — such as the Salvation Army — rather than through government action.

But that may be starting to change. Scores of religious leaders of all political views convened at the Capitol last month to pray for changes in the budget bill. Led by Wallis, they denounced the cuts in services as immoral and unchristian — and blocked an office building until they were arrested.

Pressing the same issue in a quieter manner, all 65 bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America signed a letter urging Congress to reject the proposed cuts. The church, a socially liberal denomination, has 5 million members.

Several members of Congress picked up the bishops’ terms, referring to the budget as a “moral document.” But it’s unclear whether issues such as the budget resonate as questions of faith for most Americans.

The progressive evangelicals “are starting out 25 years behind,” said Corwin Smidt, director of the Paul Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. “They haven’t built a mass base of support.”

Sojourners has 200,000 people on its e-mail list. The American Family Assn., a conservative group heavily focused on abortion and homosexuality, has 3 million. Sojourners hopes to generate several hundred calls to Congress about the budget bill, which is up for a final vote this week. The American Family Assn. got nearly 680,000 members to protest NBC’s drama “The Book of Daniel,” about a priest struggling with addiction.

Social conservatives take those numbers — and victories such as the show’s recent cancellation — as proof that they’re focusing on the issues most urgent to Christians.

“Most people’s eyes glaze over when you start talking about billions and trillions of dollars,” said American Family Assn. President Tim Wildmon. “Abortion? Gay marriage? Everyone understands that.”

Stephanie Acker, a 20-year-old college student, understands why leaders reach for issues that seem more black and white. But the relentless focus on abortion and homosexuality has made her reluctant to label herself an evangelical — or even a Christian.

“It has such connotations,” she said. “Instead, I say I’m a follower of Jesus.”

Acker said her reading of the Bible taught her that Jesus cared above all about fighting poverty and injustice. When she has a State of the Union party tonight at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., Acker will be listening for initiatives to narrow the gap between the poor and the rich.

She’s hoping to hear that a president who shares her faith also shares her priorities.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Los Angeles Times, USA
Jan. 31, 2006
Stephanie Simon, Times Staff Writer
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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday February 1, 2006.
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