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Evangelicals find the center

Rejecting political partisanship, more Evangelicals seek a broader agenda.

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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."

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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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