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Meet the new evangelicals

September 16, 2006|Mark I. Pinsky | MARK I. PINSKY, religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, is author of "A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed" (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

Mao tse-tung famously wrote that, when it comes to power, inevitably "one divides into two." As the Communist Chinese leader explained the dialectic, when any group reaches a certain level of control, fissures expand into struggles that can result in division and displacement. In the suburbs of the Sunbelt, largely out of view of blue-state media, that is exactly what is happening in the world of evangelical Christianity.

In a subtle yet tectonic shift, a slightly younger, considerably less pugnacious and less reflexively Republican generation of conservative leaders is bidding to dislodge familiar faces such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Focus on the Family's James Dobson and the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, who have held a virtual monopoly on the role of movement spokesmen for more than a decade.

Some of the new guard, such as Rick Warren, author of the megaseller "The Purpose-Driven Life," already have made their presence known on the national scene. Others, such as Richard Cizik and Ted Haggard, lobbyist and president, respectively, of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, have started making the rounds as talking heads.

But how many outside the Sunbelt would recognize Frank Page, who in June upset the inside-track candidate for president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination? Page won on a platform of changing the tone of the debate about social and political issues. When the evangelical magazine Christianity Today covered the Baptist election, the headline read, "A Kinder, Gentler Conservatism."

Perhaps the most significant change is coming from the rank and file, which until recently has been the most reliable constituency in the GOP coalition. In a farewell interview with Christianity Today, former White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian, emphasized this point: "I think there are lots and lots of young people, in their 20s to 40s, who are very impatient with older models of social engagement like those used by the religious right. They understand the importance of life issues and the family issues, but they know the concern for justice has to be broader and global. At least a good portion of the evangelical movement is looking for leaders who have a broader conception of social justice."

That's exactly what they're getting with emerging Sunbelt leaders such as Cizik, Haggard and Warren, who in February turned heads by breaking ranks with older evangelicals on global warming. Instead of calling their effort environmentalism -- anathema to much of their constituency -- they dubbed it "creation care," couching it in more familiar, biblical terms of stewardship. They also chose the Rev. Joel Hunter of Northland Church, a nondenominational congregation in Longwood, Fla., to provide the voice and commentary for a series of groundbreaking national television commercials.

"Do you know that evangelical leaders are telling us that global warming will produce even more devastating floods and disasters and disease on Earth?" Hunter asks viewers in the 30-second spot. "As Christians, our faith in Jesus Christ compels us to love our neighbors and to be stewards of God's creation. The good news is that with God's help, we can stop global warming, for our kids, for our world and for our Lord."

Few megachurch pastors have as sure a feel for their constituency as Hunter, a product of an Indiana Methodist seminary. In recent weeks, he privately published what I think is a bellwether book, "Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Why the Tactics of the Religious Right Won't Fly With Most Conservative Christians." In it, he writes: "For the most part, the religious right has been limited to the Republican Party.... A voice of biblical values cannot be in the pocket of one party.... Christians can decide for themselves how God would want them to come down on any issue.... There ought to be more than just gay marriage and pro-life issues, because the Bible is concerned with all of life.... We need to do everything we can to relieve poverty, to heal the sick and to protect the Earth."

In his political flexibility, Hunter is reflecting the sentiments of the people in his pews. For example, a national study released Tuesday, conducted by Baylor University and the Gallup organization in the fall of 2005, found that nearly 40% of evangelicals surveyed did not agree that the Iraq war was justified and that 38% no longer had a high level of trust in President Bush. Other research has shown evangelical diversity of views on such issues as tax policy, the death penalty and the role of women in society.

"Within evangelical Christianity there exists a greater multiplicity of political opinions than is widely assumed," David Gushee and Justin Phillips write in a forthcoming article for the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. "In our view, the subtle emergence of a robust evangelical center is one of the most promising developments in evangelical life today -- and therefore in American public life."

The open question is whether these changes will make a difference politically, especially in close races in which a slight shift by white evangelicals can change the outcome. Will Democrats take advantage of this generational shift in "kinder, gentler" leaders who talk more softly and rail against global warming? Is the GOP's most dependable voting bloc in play? We won't know until November and beyond.

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