Evangelicals find the center

Rejecting political partisanship, more Evangelicals are embracing a broader agenda.

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    The Future of Faith in American Politics By David P. Gushee Baylor University Press 275 pp., $24.95
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A fresh wind is blowing through the American evangelical movement: New leaders are coming to the fore. The religious right shows signs of declining influence. An evangelical "center" appears to be emerging, rejecting alignment with a single political party and embracing a broader range of concerns.

Weary of the public perception that all evangelicals back a strident Christian right, a number of faith leaders from across the spectrum are describing these changes in new books, along with their views of what constitutes a genuine, biblically based approach to politics.

In "A New Kind of Conservative," the Rev. Joel Hunter explores why the public agenda should go far beyond the hot-button issues of abortion and gay marriage as well as how to change the tone of political engagement.

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In "Red Letter Christians," liberal pastor Tony Campolo examines the "radical vision" revealed in Jesus' words (traditionally printed in red in some Bibles) – and tackles a range of issues from war to the minimum wage.

Among the most interesting of the recent crop are two books that highlight significant trends in the expanding evangelical agenda. These include the rise of an "evangelical center" and the potential for Evangelicals to collaborate with other faith groups on pressing moral issues.

About 26 percent of Americans call themselves Evangelicals, and politically they're spread across the spectrum. In The Future of Faith in American Politics, David Gushee provides an enlightening look at the sweep of the movement, describing key players and organizations that represent the left, right, and center, and the changes under way within important evangelical institutions.

This is the first attempt to fully define an emerging center, and Gushee distinguishes clearly between the three groups.

While the center shares the right's opposition to abortion and concern about the decline of marriage, for instance, it differs in its commitment to political independence, greater sensitivity to American pluralism and the constraints of the First Amendment, and active embrace of a much broader agenda. That agenda now includes climate change, poverty, racial reconciliation, human trafficking, torture, HIV/AIDS, and peacemaking.

A professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, Gushee is an insider who helped draft some of the movement's groundbreaking statements in recent years, statements which have taken it beyond issues of personal morality.

In 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals issued "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility," articulating the reasons for adding such issues as poverty and "creation care" to its agenda. In March 2007, the NAE endorsed "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture."

Some of these commitments outraged leaders of the right, who tried to remove key people involved from their posts, but failed to do so, perhaps a sign of shifting influence. In the forward to this book, Richard Cizik of the NAE calls the current scene "a battle for the soul of the evangelical believer in America."

Gushee also outlines core issues he believes evangelicals must grapple with in rethinking their role in public life. While Gushee is speaking here primarily to the evangelical community, his analyses offer outsiders insights into the evolving thinking within the evangelical movement.

The second book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, is the latest from the Rev. Jim Wallis. Wallis is the founder of Sojourners, a faith-based social justice organization. He sees the "awakening" of Evangelicals to issues of poverty and justice as the early stirrings of a new social movement, particularly among young people.

Considered by many to be part of the evangelical left, Wallis penned a previous bestseller – "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" – that helped spur Democrats to become more faith-friendly. Since then, he's traveled the country speaking to faith communities and on college campuses.

"Two of the great hungers in our world today are the hunger for spirituality and the hunger for social justice," he says. "The connection between the two is the one the world is waiting for, especially the new generation."

In "The Great Awakening" Wallis hopes to encourage such a movement. He reviews historical "great awakenings" and the social movements they spawned: the antislavery, women's rights, child labor, and civil rights movements.

When politics is broken and can't solve problems, writes Wallis, the role of social movements becomes crucial. People of faith don't do it alone, he says, but they play a key role because faith is the source of hope and personal transformation that is essential to spur social transformation.

Wallis believes people today are yearning for a "moral center," and he discusses what it means to seek the common good. He also outlines the specific values which he believes should be embraced to accomplish desired change.

His message comes at a time when the evangelical movement has several new leaders directly focused on fighting poverty and HIV/AIDS. (These include the Rev. Rick Warren of "Purpose-Driven Life" fame.)

Wallis says that during his travels, youths of varying beliefs – from Evangelicals to Catholics to atheists – have come to his talks eager to get involved.

To help catalyze this movement, Wallis is working with pastors in a few US cities on what he calls "justice revivals." They aim to engage youths and congregations in long-term practical commitments.

Although he's active on the political scene, Wallis advises faith leaders to stay away from partisanship: "No matter who your favorite is in the election, they won't be able to change the really big things unless and until there's a social movement pressing from the outside," he notes.

Jane Lampman is a Monitor staff writer.

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