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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Poverty: The moral issue that crosses theological lines.

An important religion story in today's New York Times gets enough space to move well beyond many stereotypes about American Christianity, left and right. John Leland doesn't start with Jim Wallis, but Wallis captures the essence of the story:

In postelection analyses, "values voters" were often equated with evangelical Christians, just as "values" were equated with opposition to abortion and gay marriage. But evangelical churches and seminaries have become increasingly mobilized around poverty both in the United States and abroad.

"This is the great secret story," said Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical who runs Sojourners magazine and Call to Renewal, a network of religious groups committed to combating poverty.

"The perception of evangelicals is that all they care about is abortion and gay marriage, but it isn't true," he said. "It hasn't been for years."

As evidence, Leland describes an upcoming National Council of Churches summit focused on "world peace and the elimination of global poverty" and a group of evangelicals including David J. Frenchak, president of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education, who are working on a book that moves the "moral values" focus back to poverty, which is what the Bible emphasizes as a much more fundamental ethical concern than homosexuality or abortion. He also interviews Glen E. Stassen, a professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary:

"A lot of Christians who are worried about abortion see poverty as a pro-life issue, because if you undermine the safety net for poor mothers, you'll increase the abortion rate and infant mortality rate," Dr. Stassen said. "We've seen that happen since welfare reform, just as the Catholic bishops predicted."

Dr. Stassen, who describes himself as "pro-life," added that many evangelicals, including his students, want to change the current moral values rhetoric because they think it drives people from, rather than to, the church. "They're both offended and worried that it will persuade people concerned about justice that they should not be Christians," he said.


("One More 'Moral Value': Fighting Poverty," John Leland, New York Times 1.30.05, reg req'd)

One false note in an otherwise good article: Leland describes the National Council of Churches as "an association of liberal denominations that represents more than 100,000 congregations." The NCC's advocacy efforts may be well-known for their liberalism, but the association is an ecumenical organization made up of Protestant and Orthodox denominations that would be very hard to categorize as "liberal." The United Methodist Church, for example, is the largest denomination in the NCC — and it includes a sizable number of liberal congregations — but to call it a "liberal" denomination would be grossly misleading. Even the United Church of Christ, which plays the role of "most liberal Christian denomination" in the media these days, found in 2001 that members of its churches were "slightly more likely to self-identify as 'conservative' rather than 'liberal'—both theologically and politically." (United Church News, October 2004)

Christians who want to bring poverty to the top of the agenda in the churches will need to find effective ways to speak to other Christians without presuming that political liberalism is the starting point. The students at Fuller are allies in this cause, even if many liberal Christians disagree with them on other theological or political issues.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 30 January 2005 at 10:35 AM

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January 30, 2005 09:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jim Wallis spoke at Trinity Copley today, which I was sorry to miss. Thanks for the link on his article. Also, I attended the last meeting of the Mass Council Of Churches (which I assume is related to the NCC, or am I wrong?)as a delegate. They (we?)just welcomed the Armenian Orthodox Church as members, who are hardly known as liberals. So right you are, Philocrites, for pointing out that erroneous assessment of the NCC as a liberal organization.

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