Evangelical Leaders Reexamine Principles
The National Assn. of Evangelicals is circulating a draft of a groundbreaking framework for political action that strongly endorses social and economic justice and warns against close alignment with any political party.
Steeped in biblical morality and evangelical scholarship, the framework for public engagement could change how the estimated 30 million evangelicals in this country are viewed by liberals and conservatives alike.
It affirms a religiously based commitment to government protections for the poor, the sick and disabled, including fair wages, healthcare, nutrition and education. It declares that Christians have a “sacred responsibility” to protect the environment.
But it also hews closely to a traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of families, opposition to homosexual marriage and “social evils” such as alcohol, drugs, abortion and the use of human embryos for stem-cell research. It reaffirms a commitment to religious freedom at home and abroad.
In the midst of a presidential election year, war and terrorism, the framework says Christians in their devotion to country “must be careful to avoid the excesses of nationalism.” In domestic politics, evangelicals “must guard against over-identifying Christian social goals with a single political party, lest nonbelievers think that Christian faith is essentially political in nature.”
“This is a maturing of the evangelical public mind,” said Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, one of the nation’s principal evangelical schools. “Instead of just assuming an automatic alliance with a specific party -- and that’s been traditionally the Republicans -- it says evangelicals ought to be more thoughtful.”
The draft is being reviewed by 100 denominational leaders, seminary presidents and others and is subject to final revisions. But officials said that the draft, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, was essentially complete in its present form and would go before the association’s board for approval in October.
Evangelical liberals and conservatives, who have collaborated for three years on the document, said they expected it would be approved. If the board approves the framework, it would be widely distributed throughout the country to churches, seminaries and para-church groups, such as the Promise Keepers. It would be viewed as an authoritative statement to guide them in their local political actions. In addition, it would become the main criteria guiding the association’s lobbying efforts before Congress and the White House.
The association represents 52 denominations and independent churches. Evangelical Christians place great emphasis on what they call the “lordship of Jesus Christ,” on “born again” religious conversion and the authority of the Bible. Leaders include Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and T.D. Jakes. The association encompasses denominations such as the Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, and International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
Evangelicals have been assiduously courted by President Bush, who recognized that they could be counted on in large numbers to vote Republican. Bush, a born-again Christian and member of the United Methodist Church, has won plaudits from both evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops for opposing abortion, expanded use of human embryos for stem-cell research and gay marriages.
Bush also has advocated government funds for faith-based charities and other outreach to serve the needy.
But the framework before the national association looks beyond local charity programs and declares that evangelicals and the government must look at the underlying government policies and economic practices that could institutionalize poverty and injustice.
“When social structures result in such gross disparities and suffering, the Bible writers envision structural solutions, such as periodic land redistribution so that everyone can have access to productive resources and be dignified members of their community,” the draft states.
“We’re up to our necks in politics,” said Ron Sider, co-chairman of the committee developing the framework and president and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. “What we haven’t done is a very good job of thinking through a sophisticated, integrated, comprehensive framework that is grounded in biblical values but takes in the complexity of the world,” he said.
Mouw added: “Some evangelicals sounded like conservative Republicans with a slight religious gloss to it. And others ... sounded like left-wing liberals who quoted the Bible more than others.”
But under the new public engagement framework, evangelicals may find themselves sometimes at odds with political allies in the culture wars that have buffeted the country for two decades. Genuflecting to political realism, the new framework calls on evangelicals to seek to work with whom they disagree in common cause. The framework also recognizes that in the give and take of political compromise, they may frequently have to settle for “half a loaf.”
Diane Knippers -- co-chairwoman of the drafting committee, president of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy and NAE board member -- said its contents might turn heads among conservatives and liberals who were not familiar with the breadth of evangelical faith and action.
“I think it will be a surprise to those who have a very stereotyped idea of what evangelicals are,” Knippers said. “I also think that it helps the media understand evangelicals more accurately.”
It is also a recognition of the tensions within evangelicalism.
A March poll for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly and U.S. News & World Report found that 69% of white evangelicals said they were Republicans or leaned toward the GOP. By contrast, 84% of African American evangelicals called themselves Democrats or said they leaned toward the Democratic Party.
Some evangelicals are social conservatives and generally support the Republican Party. Others are social liberals and vote Democratic. Some of the association’s member churches are historic peace churches that abhor war. Others have overwhelmingly supported military action.
The March poll, for example, reported that although 37% of white evangelicals said moral values were of most concern, 41% of all African Americans and 34% of all Hispanics said they worried most about the economy and jobs.
By grounding political action in biblical imperatives, the framework seeks to bridge such differences as much as possible, drafters of the document said. “It’s an antidote to the selective list of issues that are normally trotted out every election cycle,” said Richard Cizik, the association’s vice president of governmental affairs, and project director of the new effort. “Our contention is you can’t just take three or four issues to reflect the entire panoply of evangelical thinking.”
In foreign affairs, the framework exhorts the U.S. government to step up efforts to promote religious freedom and democracy in “former colonial lands, Muslim nations, and ex-Communist countries.” Reflecting a historic evangelical imperative to win converts to Christianity, the framework said that religious freedom should include “the right to change one’s religion.”
On issues of war and peace, it was more tempered, reflecting differences among evangelicals, some of whom are in the pacifist tradition of Christianity, and others who support “just wars.” The framework makes no mention of the current controversy over “preemptive war” triggered by Bush’s decision to attack Iraq.
“We urge governments to pursue thoroughly nonviolent paths to peace before resorting to military force,” the draft states. Force, it says, must be in the cause of peace and be employed under historical “just war” standards. Such standards, however, are open to differing interpretations, those who drafted the framework said.
In any case, evangelical leaders said the framework represented a milestone in the movement of evangelicals from the insularity of a revival tent mind-set in the early 20th century to the political activism of the 21st century.
Cizik, the association’s governmental affairs official, said he hoped that the framework would spur discussion before the November presidential election.
But its greatest influence probably will be over the long term, said the Rev. Kevin Mannoia, the association’s past president. Mannoia said he set the framework process in motion because he saw a need for a coherence in the evangelical response to public policy issues. Mannoia’s successor, the Rev. Ted Haggard, agreed and followed through.
“I think short term it probably won’t have a lot of impact. In the long term it will have a fairly significant impact,” Mannoia said. “It will gradually seep into the consciousness of evangelical leaders, and it will become a guiding light.”