In the face of seemingly unshakable belief, ecstatic worship and political action that characterize many conservative Christian evangelicals, the low-key liberals of old-line Protestant churches sometimes refer to themselves as the "frozen chosen."
But the sound you hear next weekend in Pasadena may be that of ice cracking. Intent on offering a contrasting Christian vision to that of Christian social conservatives on issues such as poverty, taxation, health care, violence and injustice, old-line liberals say they are determined to put passion back into the religious and civic lives of their members.
How they plan to do it may surprise Christian conservatives: going back to the Bible.
During a daylong conference June 1 titled "Mobilizing for the Human Family," participants will discuss the drafts of 10 detailed position papers on social issues--and the biblical underpinnings of a liberal Christian response.
Liberals hope that once Christians are reminded of the scriptural and moral grounds for their churches' historic preference for the poor, they will recommit themselves to action.
During the last two decades, the old-line denominations have been eclipsed by the growth of evangelical and Pentecostal churches. With their growth has come political power--and power exercised with a pronounced conservative agenda in mind.
While evangelicals historically placed great importance on ministering to the poor--and a number of evangelical pastors continue to make service to the poor a cornerstone of their ministries--most evangelicals today are social conservatives, reflecting a trend in the larger population.
"Suddenly, we see the Christian faith pushing these [poor] people outside," the Rev. Fred Register, a conference organizer, said in an interview. "That's not the Jesus we know." Register is Southern California conference minister-emeritus of the United Church of Christ.
Register was particularly critical of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.
"We will not let Christianity be co-opted," he said in an earlier statement. "We refuse to let our faith become associated with harsh judgments against the poor and against immigrants, with insidious racism and narrow nationalism, with regressive measures that seek to roll back hard-won gains in civil liberties, in women's rights and in social advances for gay people."
Carol Baker Tharp, another organizer and an elder in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., added: "Most exciting is not talking just about issues, but articulating what we believe and asking if I believe this then how must I respond?"
The Rev. Ignacio Caustera of Hollywood United Methodist Church, said it is time to fuse "passion with progressiveness."
The keynote speaker will be former congressman William H. Gray III, who is now pastor of the 5,000-member Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Other participants include the Rev. John Cobb, a nationally known theologian at the Claremont School of Theology; the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray, pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles; Patricia Whitney-Wise, executive director of the California Council of Churches; and the Rev. George Regas, rector-emeritus of All Saints Episcopal Church.
Sponsored by the Claremont Consultation, a group organized to counter the Christian Coalition, the conference will examine position papers on children's issues, civil rights, the environment, health care and medical practices, immigration, sexuality, tax policy, violence, welfare and work.
For example, in one paper Regas deplores government spending cuts in welfare programs intended to aid children.
"The Christian Coalition argues endlessly about the fetus but appears to be indifferent to the child," Regas said. "Almost 70% of those on welfare are children, and it is they who will now suffer with less food, clothing, shelter and medical care. . . ." Regas added that the Republican "contract with America" would eliminate welfare for anyone under 18 who has a child.
"The biblical imperative for justice would reveal this welfare carnage is an act of profound irresponsibility," he said. A draft paper by conference participants on government and taxes also questions the moral basis of changes in the earned income tax credit.
"The Republican proposal to raise taxes on the working poor by lowering the earned income tax credit while reducing taxes on those better able to pay seems to us to lead to a state that is incompatible with the biblical vision," the paper says. It notes that corporate tax breaks and business subsidies cost U.S. taxpayers more than twice as much as welfare payments and adds, "Taxes are the way we can do together what we can do better together than separately."
The conference will be held at All Saints Episcopal Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena. It begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. The cost is $10. For reservations, contact the Process and Faith Center at the School of Theology at Claremont, (909) 626-3521, Ext. 288.