On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, Evangelical superstar Rick Warren – author of the runaway bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life" – hosted an AIDS summit at his California megachurch. The keynoter? Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois.
It's difficult to decide which is more astounding: a prominent evangelical pastor leading the fight against AIDS – a disease some Christian conservatives still tag as God's punishment for homosexuals – or a celebrated Democrat and possible 2008 presidential contender taking center stage at Mr. Warren's church. The Warren-Obama event reflects striking and welcome changes under way among America's 50 million Evangelicals, with potentially dynamic political consequences.
In recent decades, the political profile of white Evangelicals has been fairly predictable: strong allegiance to Republicans and focus on a few social concerns. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson form the familiar trinity of the Christian Right.
Although embryonic, a remarkable trend is emerging among Evangelicals today: the embrace of a social agenda that includes not only abortion and marriage, but poverty, AIDS, the environment, and human rights.
In February, a group of megachurch pastors and other leaders launched the "Evangelical Climate Initiative," calling for federal legislation to curb greenhouse gases. Earlier this fall, "Evangelicals for Darfur" – a group backed by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and the 30-million strong National Association of Evangelicals – pressured President Bush to take the lead in sending a multinational peacekeeping force to Sudan.
The most telling change is perhaps taking place in the pulpit. For most of the past century, Evangelicals have reacted against the Social Gospel movement of the progressive era, which many felt replaced the Gospel message with one of mere worldly social action. Today, however, a new generation of evangelical pastors is weaving an ethic of "neighbor love" into the fabric of sin and salvation.
Take the Rev. Tim Keller. In 1989, he founded Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church, now home to some 6,000 churchgoers. Dr. Keller's sermons often move seamlessly from a message of personal redemption to one of caring for the urban poor. Redeemer's "Hope for New York" program provides grants to social-service organizations and puts volunteers on the streets. Christians, Keller quips, should form a "counterculture for the common good."
To be sure, leaders such as Warren and Keller do not yet represent a majority within evangelicalism. Old-guard Christian conservative Phyllis Schlafly of the influential Eagle Forum urged Warren to rescind his offer to Obama, expressing "indignation" that he had invited a senator who supports the legal right to an abortion.
Last month, Orlando pastor Joel Hunter resigned his post as president-elect of the Christian Coalition after its leaders opposed his plans to put "creation care" and "helping society's marginalized" on the agenda. The real scoop, however, is that these tensions even exist.
With Evangelicals representing nearly one-fourth of the electorate, this trend should raise more than one political eyebrow. While the new agenda may resonate with some Democratic priorities, however, it does not herald a march from right to left. Rather, it signals a move from the right to a point outside well-worn political lines.
The pulpit Obama graced was moments before in the hands of Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas – a social conservative and likely 2008 rival, should Obama run. Warren wasn't soliciting political bids; he was calling for collaboration on a tragic issue. Rather than party loyalists for either side, Evangelicals might turn out to be perennial swing voters.
To win their support, Democrats will have to make decisive moves. Evangelicals remain wary of big government and will often favor solutions that preserve local control and support private efforts. Bristling at all things faith-based is unwise.
Furthermore, while the environment and poverty are on the table, abortion has not gone away. Democrats will need to welcome a bigger tent. As Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York suggested in her 2005 Albany speech, even Democrats who want to preserve the legal right to an abortion can recognize its tragedy and make limiting its occurrence central to their message. No doubt the GOP will adapt, as well. The 2008 Republican presidential candidate may well decide that taking the same position on global warming that Bush does today is a political risk.
The conversion of America's Evangelicals to a broader sense of mission is nascent but firmly under way. For a nation needing a greater sense of the common good – and Evangelicals tempted to place politics above it – this trend is good news.
• Mark Totten is a fellow at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and practices law in Washington.