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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Whose Evangelicalism can broaden Christian politics?

This week's New Republic features three articles that will be of particular interest to liberal Christians and other people unhappy with the rising political clout of conservative white Evangelicals. None of them offers good news, although their analysis is illuminating. The first — to which I'll dedicate this post — is Michelle Cottle's article about attempts to broaden the Evangelical political agenda, with Jim Wallis on the left and Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals on the right.

Cottle writes:

In many ways, Wallis's jockeying with the religious right is less interesting—and certainly less complicated—than the efforts of people like Cizik, whose constituents share much of the right's politics and passions. Founded in 1942 to help unify the evangelical community, the NAE has long stood as an alternative to the more liberal National Council of Churches . . . The NAE's political profile and access fluctuated significantly during its early years, until Reagan's embrace of evangelical voters helped bring it into the big leagues. (It was at the NAE's 1983 convention that Reagan made his famous Evil Empire speech denouncing communism.) Also during this period, however, the NAE, and evangelicalism in general, came to be seen by many as synonymous with the spotlight-grabbing religious right and its quest to impose Christian virtue on the broader public—a perception that grew as the right loudly battled the Clinton White House on issues involving abortion and gay rights.

Asked to take over the NAE's lobbying shop in 1995, Cizik saw the job as an opportunity to confront evangelicals' failure to forge a more comprehensive public theology. "Evangelicals had to get beyond the political hamstrings of our own movement and address the wider array of issues," he notes. To this end, Cizik has spent the past decade pushing the NAE, which now claims to speak on behalf of more than 30 million evangelicals, to expand its policy focus to include everything from combating aids in Africa to strengthening environmental laws here at home. In a symbolic culmination of this effort, last October, the association's board approved a 26-page statement of beliefs titled "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." [Click here for links to the document and earlier commentary.] Endorsed by more than 100 evangelical leaders, the document urges Christians toward political engagement not only on traditional family values issues, but also in "creation care" (as many evangelicals prefer to call environmentalism) and working to shrink the gap between rich and poor.

While he respects Wallis's high-profile push to broaden the definition of "moral values," Cizik sees the NAE, by dint of its conservative constituency, as better positioned than liberal groups to effect change. . . .

But, even more than Wallis's campaign, the NAE's plans to expand the evangelical agenda risk being derailed by the fact that many of its most politically entrenched Christian brethren don't want attention diverted from hot-button life and family issues.

In other words, as long as conservatives who think they're Christians stay focused on other people's sexual "deviance," the NAE's other political proposals will be non-starters. Which is a pity for the gospel and a continuing bonanza for demagogues.

("Prayer Center," Michelle Cottle, New Republic 5.23.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 15 May 2005 at 4:16 PM

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May 23, 2005 08:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Since I seem unable to find the time to finish a full response to the other two New Republic articles I want to mention, I'd better just mention them. Also in the May 23 issue is Alan Wolfe's long review of God's Politics and Taking Faith Seriously (co-edited by friend-of-Philocrites Richard Higgins), which near the very end discusses a 2000 forum at the Unitarian Universalist First Parish in Lexington, Mass., that I really do want to discuss at some point. But I'm going to have to look at the book itself first.

The other article that I want to call attention to is Noam Scheiber's careful look at George Lakoff's work. Scheiber finds much to praise in Moral Politics, but cautions Democrats who have fallen under the spell of Lakoff's more recent book, Don't Think of an Elephant:

When he gives practical advice, he has no particular professional expertise to draw on; instead, he simply invokes his ideological predispositions. In these situations, Lakoff invariably recommends the kind of liberal policies and catchphrases that reflect his own nurturant worldview and that, as a result, don't often burst with electoral appeal.

The case in point is Don't Think of an Elephant!, the New York Times best-seller Lakoff wrote in five weeks last summer. In it, Lakoff argues that Republicans have spent the last 40 years embracing the values of their hardest-core supporters. They win elections because people in the political center find these values compelling absent a clear alternative from Democrats. (Lakoff believes swing voters are people who subscribe to both strict father and nurturant parent models, depending on the situation. The party that succeeds is the party whose moral system gets elevated in the minds of these voters.) "The conservatives do not move at all to the left, and yet they win!" Lakoff writes.

According to Don't Think, Democrats should embrace the nurturant parent values of their most loyal supporters the same way Republicans have embraced strict fatherhood. "I think it's really important ... that [Democrats] not move to the right," Lakoff explains during our interview. "First, it's kind of dishonest, and one of the values of progressive thought is honesty. ... Secondly, when they move to the right outside the scope of their own values, then they basically help conservatives, they offend their base. They're no longer in a single moral system."

One obvious flaw in this recommendation is that it presumes a majority of Americans are nurturers by, well, nature. "I think there are more [born] Democrats than Republicans anyway," Lakoff says. At least for the moment, though, that claim is empirically false: In the last election, 45 percent of voters identified themselves as moderates, 34 percent as conservatives, and only 21 percent as liberals.

("What God Owes Jefferson," Alan Wolfe, New Republic 5.23.05; "Wooden Frame: Is George Lakoff Misleading Democrats?" Noam Scheiber, New Republic 5.23.05, sub req'd)

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