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.
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