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Evangelical Leaders Reexamine Principles

A draft affirms the need for government to aid the needy and warns of excessive nationalism.

June 20, 2004|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

The National Assn. of Evangelicals is circulating a draft of a groundbreaking framework for political action that strongly endorses social and economic justice and warns against close alignment with any political party.

Steeped in biblical morality and evangelical scholarship, the framework for public engagement could change how the estimated 30 million evangelicals in this country are viewed by liberals and conservatives alike.

It affirms a religiously based commitment to government protections for the poor, the sick and disabled, including fair wages, healthcare, nutrition and education. It declares that Christians have a "sacred responsibility" to protect the environment.

But it also hews closely to a traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of families, opposition to homosexual marriage and "social evils" such as alcohol, drugs, abortion and the use of human embryos for stem-cell research. It reaffirms a commitment to religious freedom at home and abroad.

In the midst of a presidential election year, war and terrorism, the framework says Christians in their devotion to country "must be careful to avoid the excesses of nationalism." In domestic politics, evangelicals "must guard against over-identifying Christian social goals with a single political party, lest nonbelievers think that Christian faith is essentially political in nature."

"This is a maturing of the evangelical public mind," said Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, one of the nation's principal evangelical schools. "Instead of just assuming an automatic alliance with a specific party -- and that's been traditionally the Republicans -- it says evangelicals ought to be more thoughtful."

The draft is being reviewed by 100 denominational leaders, seminary presidents and others and is subject to final revisions. But officials said that the draft, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, was essentially complete in its present form and would go before the association's board for approval in October.

Evangelical liberals and conservatives, who have collaborated for three years on the document, said they expected it would be approved. If the board approves the framework, it would be widely distributed throughout the country to churches, seminaries and para-church groups, such as the Promise Keepers. It would be viewed as an authoritative statement to guide them in their local political actions. In addition, it would become the main criteria guiding the association's lobbying efforts before Congress and the White House.

The association represents 52 denominations and independent churches. Evangelical Christians place great emphasis on what they call the "lordship of Jesus Christ," on "born again" religious conversion and the authority of the Bible. Leaders include Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and T.D. Jakes. The association encompasses denominations such as the Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, and International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evangelicals have been assiduously courted by President Bush, who recognized that they could be counted on in large numbers to vote Republican. Bush, a born-again Christian and member of the United Methodist Church, has won plaudits from both evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops for opposing abortion, expanded use of human embryos for stem-cell research and gay marriages.

Bush also has advocated government funds for faith-based charities and other outreach to serve the needy.

But the framework before the national association looks beyond local charity programs and declares that evangelicals and the government must look at the underlying government policies and economic practices that could institutionalize poverty and injustice.

"When social structures result in such gross disparities and suffering, the Bible writers envision structural solutions, such as periodic land redistribution so that everyone can have access to productive resources and be dignified members of their community," the draft states.

"We're up to our necks in politics," said Ron Sider, co-chairman of the committee developing the framework and president and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. "What we haven't done is a very good job of thinking through a sophisticated, integrated, comprehensive framework that is grounded in biblical values but takes in the complexity of the world," he said.

Mouw added: "Some evangelicals sounded like conservative Republicans with a slight religious gloss to it. And others ... sounded like left-wing liberals who quoted the Bible more than others."

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