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Evangelicals find the center

Rejecting political partisanship, more Evangelicals seek a broader agenda.

By Jane Lampman / March 19, 2008

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.

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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.

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."

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