Evangelicals show they're not in political lockstep

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2005

As George W. Bush began his second term, his words and actions seemed to reinforce the image of a president whose straightforward piety helped him win re-election and earned him lockstep loyalty from white evangelicals.

He attended worship services before and after his inauguration. The ceremony itself featured both a benediction in Jesus' name and the president's own God-spangled address. Bush said the nation, from its founding, has proclaimed the rights of every person on earth ''because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth.'' He added that America's character is sustained by the varied faiths of its people.

Though many doubtless cheered the president's strength-through-faith message, days before the inauguration, some prominent evangelicals showed the movement's political profile is more complex than it often appears.

Seventy-six leaders of evangelical colleges, seminaries, denominations and ministries petitioned Bush about health insurance and the ''unacceptably high'' rates of U.S. hunger and poverty.

The group further lamented that the United States ''ranks absolutely last'' among developed nations in ''governmental assistance to overcome global poverty,'' echoing a United Nations official's controversial comment about ''stingy'' nations in the wealthy West.

Things may become more complicated in March as a National Association of Evangelicals conference discusses a lengthy political platform, titled ''For the Health of the Nation,'' that the organization's board endorsed unanimously last October.

The text opens by asserting that evangelicals ''make up fully one-quarter of all voters in the most powerful nation in history.''

It then goes on to challenge both political parties, says NAE Washington, D.C., representative Rich Cizik. ''It has a broad agenda of concerns, not just abortion and gay marriage,'' he says.

As the platform puts it: ''The Bible makes it clear that God cares a great deal about the well-being of marriage, the family, the sanctity of human life, justice for the poor, care for creation, peace, freedom and racial justice.''

Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw says the document provides a valuable reminder that ''evangelicalism is a very diverse movement.'' His point is further reinforced by a new anthology, ''Toward An Evangelical Public Policy'' (Baker), that addresses issues the NAE also raises.

Though almost all evangelicals are conservative on family and moral issues, Mouw says, a significant segment questions Bush's foreign and economic policies. To accommodate a pacifist minority, the NAE platform says evangelicals differ on whether military force is justified to defend the nation or help people elsewhere.

Though it lacks major political clout, the NAE claims a constituency of many millions of American Christians in 45,000 local congregations and numerous independent ministries.

University of Akron political scientist John C.Green says the NAE represents evangelicalism's pragmatic center over against two other wings, the progressive evangelicals and the Christian right, which includes much of the Southern Baptist Convention, U.S. Protestantism's largest denomination.

Evangelicals of the left and center have long been obscured by the media coverage of outspoken figures on the right, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The right's other spokespeople include child psychologist James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Southern Baptist executive Richard Land and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

The left's leaders include Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine and Call to Renewal, an anti-poverty religious coalition. His new manifesto ''God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong, and the Left Doesn't Get It.''

(HarperSanFrancisco) attacks not only conservatives but liberals and Democrats who oppose religious involvement in public life.

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