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A push to keep politics separate

A group of high-profile evangelical Christians issues manifesto urging fellow believers not to politicize their faith.

May 10, 2008|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

A group of prominent U.S. evangelical Christians is urging other evangelicals to step back from partisan politics and avoid becoming "useful idiots" for any political party.

In an often strongly worded statement released this week, more than 70 pastors, scholars and business leaders said faith and politics have become too closely intertwined and that evangelicals err when they use their religious beliefs for political purposes.

About a quarter of U.S. adults call themselves evangelical Christians, polls show, and for the last 30 years, the "religious right" has been a reliable base of support for the Republican Party. But Christians from both ends of the political spectrum have made the mistake of politicizing their faith, the group declares in the document, called “An Evangelical Manifesto.”

When that occurs, "faith loses its independence, the church becomes 'the regime at prayer,' Christians become 'useful idiots' for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form," the document says.

Three years in the making, the manifesto was signed by many high-profile, mostly centrist evangelicals, including Leith Anderson, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals; Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners magazine; and Frank Wright, president of National Religious Broadcasters.

Many of the most prominent conservative evangelicals did not sign. A spokesman for James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, said Dobson had concerns about the document and decided not to add his name.

One of the statement's drafters said one purpose was to reclaim the word "evangelical" from its political association.

"This is not primarily a political movement," said the Rev. John Huffman Jr., senior pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach and board chairman of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. "Evangelicalism is a theological understanding that we are called to be followers of Jesus Christ, and that's not captive to a culture, society or nation."

Huffman and other organizers said the document's release was not timed to the U.S. presidential contest. But he said he hoped one result would be to persuade some of the more outspoken evangelical voices to tone down their political rhetoric.

"The evangelical umbrella is very large and I won't try to detract from anyone who loves Jesus and has a biblical rationale for their views on any issue," Huffman said. "But we hope some who've been more strident in their statements will be a little more cautious in the future."

Analyst Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said he expected the statement to have limited political impact.

"It's mainly a warning to people not to confuse their personal faith with political convictions," he said.

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Muslims on the West

The coauthor of a new Gallup analysis of public opinion in the Muslim world said that based on its findings, conflict between Muslims and the West is not inevitable.

"Most Muslims like and admire much about the West, from our democracy to our technology," said Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and coauthor of a new Gallup book, "Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think."

The book, which Mogahed wrote with John L. Esposito, professor of religion and Islamic studies at Georgetown University, is based on 50,000 interviews by Gallup in 40 countries with predominantly Muslim populations or significant Muslim minorities. The interviews were conducted between 2001 and 2007, and the book was published this spring.

In two recent Los Angeles appearances, Mogahed said the researchers wanted to give voice to ordinary Muslims. "So much has been said about 'why they hate us,' " she said. "We wanted to help illuminate what's really on their minds," she said.

Among the findings:

Muslims around the world do not view the West as monolithic.

Muslims are as likely as Americans to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified.

Muslims say the West can best improve relations with the Muslim world by respecting Islam.

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Pope improves image

A new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that Pope Benedict XVI improved his image among Americans with a recent U.S. visit. The poll, conducted shortly after the pope's April 15-20 visit to the East Coast, shows that 61% of Americans say they have a favorable impression of Benedict, up from 52% in late March.

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rebecca.trounson@ latimes.com

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