Signs of a truce in America's divisive culture war?

A group with Evangelical and progressive members released proposals Wednesday.

For far too long, say many Americans, extreme partisanship and polarization have stymied the country's political process. The chief culprits? Some blame the strident voices of the culture war.

Now, calls for a truce are coming from a group of leaders from the Evangelical and progressive communities, long at odds with each other. They're pointing the way toward common ground on the most polarizing issues, with aims of a new civility and concrete progress.

After more than six months of discussions involving dozens of people across the spectrum, the group released a joint report Wednesday – "Come Let Us Reason Together."

Changing climates in both communities make a joint initiative possible, they say. The report bolsters that view by outlining specific principles and proposals on hot-button topics such as abortion, gay and lesbian issues, and the role of religion in public life.

"There's new movement within both communities to call for the beginning of the end of the culture war," says Rachel Laser, director of the culture project at Third Way, the progressive "strategy center" in Washington that initiated the effort. "We actually want to be in the same room and find ways to move forward together."

Much of the American public has yearned to see a search for common ground on culture-war issues. For example, a 2006 Pew poll found that 66 percent of adults say the country needs to find "middle ground" on abortion.

While it's doubtful the group of Evangelicals and progressives will win over those holding the most ardent positions, particularly in the religious right, it's tried to engage all sides. Supporters range from the Rev. Dr. Joel Hunter, a former president-elect of the conservative Christian Coalition, to Christian media executive Joe Battaglia to the Rev. Harry Knox of the Human Rights Campaign, which promotes gay rights.

Crumbling stereotypes

As group members have worked together, stereotypes have crumbled. Evangelicals have found that progressives are not all hostile to religion, and progressives have found Evangelicals to be diverse and nuanced in their views. Several Pew polls have found similar results.

The report defines this as a "one-fifth, one-third, one-half pattern." "We found that one-fifth of Evangelicals are progressives, one-third are moderates and share some progressive values, and one-half are conservatives, who may even be partners on particular issues," says Robert P. Jones, a coauthor of the report.

John Green, Pew's expert on religion and politics, calls their interpretation of several studies "excellent." The data suggest that an alliance is plausible, he adds, but the question is whether it will reach beyond leaders to the public, if leaders in the religious right oppose it.

Many Evangelicals have already raised the ire of the far right by broadening their concerns to include issues of poverty, HIV/AIDS, the environment, and torture.

"The Christian Right moral agenda has been too narrow and too partisan," says David Gushee, who teaches ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta. "A large group of us believes the Bible and Christian faith require a broad and holistic moral engagement with culture and also a strong commitment to political independence."

Pressures from young people both within and without the church are also spurring a change in approach. In a startling new book, "unChristian," research by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group finds that Christianity has a severe image problem among young US adults, even churchgoers. They charge Christians as being "antihomosexual, hypocritical, too political, and judgmental."

Mistakes have been made by Evangelical leadership, says Randy Brinson, a physician who founded Redeem the Vote to register young Evangelicals for the last election. (They registered more than all religious-right groups combined, he says.)

"If I stand on a street corner and say, 'Your behavior is bad,' that's going to do no good," says Dr. Brinson, a coauthor of the report. "The only way I'm going to communicate is if I have a relationship with people.... We need to build mutual trust."

The report details "a shared vision" on five divisive issues: abortion, gay and lesbian issues, treatment of human embryos, safe spaces for children online, and responsible fatherhood.

Steps on gay issues

Some see a breakthrough on gay matters. The proposals emphasize protecting human rights and dignity while agreeing that no legislation to protect those rights should or need abridge the religious liberty of religious communities.

Now that the report is released, the next step involves a series of carefully planned policy conversations, organized by Third Way, to expand and deepen the alliance. Some see the broad public yearning for progress on these cultural issues as reason for hope.

"People are tired of the brain-dead debates and of the nastiness," says Melissa Rogers, who teaches religion and public affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Big issues are at stake, and many are saying, 'It's time for us to find our voice.' " [Editors note: The original version misidentified the location of the school.]

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