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Evangelicals Branch Out Politically

A growing movement sees myriad causes beyond abortion and gay marriage. What about helping the poor and global warming?

January 31, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Answering an evangelical call to arms, Christians will gather in communities across the nation tonight to watch President Bush's State of the Union address. They will invite local media to listen in as they measure Bush's policies against the moral values laid out in the Bible.

But don't expect a lot of applause for the president.

These "watch parties" are being organized by a small but growing movement of evangelical Christians who no longer want to be defined by gay marriage and abortion. Plumbing the Bible for God's priorities, they are talking instead about global warming and affordable housing, about fewer tax cuts for the rich and more food stamps for the poor.

"The typical image of evangelicals is that they're concerned with the sanctity of life, the traditional family and that's it -- they buy the whole Republican agenda when they vote," said Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, a think tank based in Wynnewood, Pa.

Without giving up their opposition to abortion and gay marriage, "they're asking, what [else] does God care about?" Sider said.

Citing Jesus' concern for the most vulnerable, evangelicals last month led a protest against a proposed federal budget that would cut deeply into food stamps, subsidized health insurance and student aid.

The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, has spoken out for clean-air and clean-water policies, arguing that God ordered man to be a good steward of creation. He hears pastors everywhere picking up the theme.

"It's happening more and more: A Republican hunter from a Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma knows he has a responsibility to the environment," Haggard said. "The community that drives pickup trucks is also learning to drive scooters."

It was an evangelical minister, the Rev. Jim Ball, who launched the "What Would Jesus Drive" campaign that made a brief splash promoting hybrid cars in 2003. More recently, Ball and others have been working on a policy statement on global warming.

The most liberal voice in the evangelical movement belongs to the Rev. Jim Wallis, author of the book "God's Politics." Wallis heads the advocacy group Sojourners, which is sponsoring the State of the Union parties in 160 communities nationwide. He is not in favor of abortion but opposes criminalizing it; he cannot accept gay marriage but would welcome civil unions.

Mostly, though, he doesn't like answering questions on those issues. "It's such a tired conversation," he said.

When critics ask him how any issue could be more important than the 1 million lives aborted each year, Wallis challenges them to take a broader view of "pro-life" values. He asks them how many children go to sleep hungry each year, how many sicken because their parents can't afford a doctor, and whether God would approve.

He's starting to hear some answers he finds encouraging.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, Wallis spent hours in conversation with the Rev. Rick Warren, the author of the mega-bestseller "The Purpose-Driven Life." Warren recently launched a global anti-poverty campaign with the Rev. Billy Graham.

The National Assn. of Evangelicals, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., is urging its 30 million members to pursue a "biblically balanced agenda" -- by fighting poverty as well as pornography, protecting the environment as well as embryos, promoting good government as well as the Gospel.

"I would call it the maturing of American evangelism," said sociologist Alan Wolfe, who directs the study of religion and public life at Boston College.

Evangelicals emerged as a potent political force in the late 1970s and early '80s with the Rev. Jerry Falwell's "Moral Majority" crusade on issues such as abortion, gay rights and school prayer.

Those campaigns made "evangelical" synonymous with "conservative" in the public eye. In fact, the term has nothing to do with politics. Evangelicals are Christians who have accepted Jesus as their savior (an experience often called being "born again") and who take the Bible as the word of God, to be faithfully obeyed.

Bush is an evangelical, as are Democratic former Presidents Carter and Clinton.

A decade ago, white evangelicals were fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Today, the group leans heavily Republican. White evangelicals make up 23% of the electorate; in the last election, 78% backed Bush, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The White House holds weekly conference calls with top conservative evangelicals. Many of these leaders focus on preserving the traditional family; when they dip into issues of poverty and justice, they tend to look abroad. (Recent campaigns have included efforts to bring peace to Sudan, slow the spread of AIDS in Africa and improve human rights in North Korea.)

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