A struggle for control of the evangelical agenda intensified this week, with some leaders declaring that the focus has strayed too far from their signature battles against abortion and gay rights.
Those issues defined the evangelical movement for more than two decades -- and cemented ties with the Republican Party. But in a caustic letter, leaders of the religious right warned that these “great moral issues of our time” were being displaced by a “divisive and dangerous” alignment with the left on global warming.
A new generation of pastors has expanded the definition of moral issues to include not only global warming, but an array of causes. Quoting Scripture and invoking Jesus, they’re calling for citizenship for illegal immigrants, universal healthcare and caps on carbon emissions.
The best-known champion of such causes, the Rev. Jim Wallis, this week challenged conservative crusader James C. Dobson, the chairman of Focus on the Family, to a debate on evangelical priorities.
“Are the only really ‘great moral issues’ those concerning abortion, gay marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence?” Wallis asked in his challenge. “How about the reality of 3 billion of God’s children living on less than $2 per day? ... What about pandemics like HIV/AIDS ... [and] disastrous wars like Iraq?”
A Focus on the Family vice president, Tom Minnery, said he would be happy to take up that debate. Dobson himself, Minnery said, is busy writing a book on child rearing.
“Without question,” Minnery said, “issues like the right to life for an unborn child concern evangelicals far more broadly.”
The public dispute began with the release of a letter signed by several men who helped transform the religious right into a political force, including Dobson, Don Wildmon of the American Family Assn. and Paul Weyrich of American Values.
The signatories -- most of them activists, not theologians -- expressed dismay that an evangelical emphasis on global warming was “contributing to growing confusion about the very term ‘evangelical.’ ”
In religious terms, an evangelical is a Christian who has been born again, seeks a personal relationship with Christ, and considers the Bible the word of God, to be faithfully obeyed.
But Dobson and his fellow letter-writers suggested that evangelical should also signify “conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality.”
The letter took particular aim at the Rev. Richard Cizik, a prominent evangelical lobbyist who has promoted environmental protection as a moral imperative. Citing the creation story in the Book of Genesis, he has called the fight against global warming a directive “straight from the word of God ... no doubt about it.”
The letter accused Cizik of “dividing and demoralizing” Christians by pushing this agenda and called on his employer, the National Assn. of Evangelicals, to silence him or to demand his resignation.
“This is, in some ways, a defining moment,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Columbia University in New York. “It’s the old guard trying to hold on.”
The renewed debate on moral priorities came as the National Assn. of Evangelicals -- which represents 45,000 churches and 30 million Christians -- gathered for a board meeting Friday in Eden Prairie, Minn.
The board declined to censure or silence Cizik. Moreover, it appeared to embrace a broad view of the evangelical agenda, endorsing a sweeping human rights declaration.
The board also reaffirmed its support for a 2004 Call to Civic Responsibility that urged evangelical engagement on seven key issues, including religious freedom, the sanctity of life, justice for the poor, and environmental protection.
Those advocating a broader agenda insist that they’re not trying to downplay -- much less back away from -- traditional evangelical positions on abortion and sexual morality.
White evangelicals are more united against abortion than any other religious group, including Catholics, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. A 2005 poll found 15% in support of a total ban on abortion and 53% in favor of only narrow exceptions. By contrast, global warming is deemed a “very serious” problem by less than 30% of white evangelicals, according to a 2006 Pew Forum poll. Less than 40% accept the scientific consensus that human activity, such as burning coal for energy, is responsible for the Earth’s rising temperatures.
“It’s a mistake to think that we’re all becoming liberal Democrats. That’s not true,” Wallis said.
But he asserted that his followers -- especially young people -- no longer want the old guard of evangelicals to define their priorities.
When he preached recently at a conservative evangelical college, Wallis said, he was besieged by students furious at the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who recently described global warming as a satanic plot to divert Christians from more pressing moral issues, such as spreading the Gospel.
“James Dobson and the religious right are outside the evangelical mainstream. That’s just a fact,” Wallis said. “That doesn’t mean they have no power.... But their monologue is over. Their control of the agenda is over.”
He and others have sought to re-brand traditional slogans of the religious right, such as “pro-life,” to encompass a range of programs, from working with AIDS victims in Africa to helping illegal immigrants achieve legal status so they can continue to live with their U.S.-born children.
The Rev. Jim Ball, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, has worked global warming into his definition of pro-life; he argues reducing carbon emissions will cut back on air and water pollution and that in turn will improve the health of pregnant women and unborn generations.
“We’re saying we can be pro-life and take care of global warming,” Bal said. “There’s a strong connection there.”
Friday’s board meeting advanced that view, but the debate is not over.
“The NAE is at a crossroads,” board member Jerald Walz said.
“You won’t find an evangelical who will say ‘I’m for poverty.’ Of course not,” Walz said.
But when it comes to helping the poor, ideas vary; some prefer to work through private charity, while others want government intervention.
Since there’s no consensus, Walz argued, “we ought to be reticent about speaking with force and clarity” on such issues.
Instead, he will keep pressing to focus the agenda on issues he considers “home runs” -- namely, restrictions on abortion and bans on same-sex marriage.
Some on the board who share those views are already working on a second letter criticizing Cizik for his environmental activism.
Balmer, the religion professor, says he senses an unstoppable momentum for the new generation of social-justice evangelicals. But though he criticizes the traditionalists for “moral myopia,” he’s not willing to write them off yet.
Dobson and his allies still wield considerable clout; their radio shows, newsletters and e-mail alerts reach millions of conservative Christians.
“They’re still very powerful,” Balmer said. “And they’re not giving up.”