|Moderate Evangelicals Seek to Broaden Political Agenda|
Moderate evangelicals seek to broaden social agenda
BY STEVENSON SWANSON
NEW YORK - (KRT) - When it comes to politics, evangelical Christians don't all sing from the same choir book.
Abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research may be the issues most commonly associated with evangelical voters, but moderate and liberal evangelicals are mounting an effort to make their voices heard on subjects not normally associated with their movement, including poverty, the war in Iraq and the environment.
White evangelical Protestants voted overwhelmingly for President Bush last year, but, illustrating the broader spectrum of thought within the group, 76 leaders of evangelical colleges, seminaries and ministries recently asked him to do something about what they called the nation's "unacceptably high" rates of hunger and poverty and the high numbers of Americans who lack health insurance.
"I think it's really important to break up the old stereotypes," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, an evangelical whose new book, "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," has drawn attention to evangelicals' political diversity.
"There is a progressive religious option, and that is encouraging to people of faith who are tired of the control of this issue by the right."
Although precise definitions vary, the estimated 55 million evangelicals in America generally believe that the Bible is infallible and that a transforming experience, or being "born again," is required for a person to be saved.
Wallis, for example, uses the Bible to support his contention that evangelicals should be more concerned about the poor. The Bible, he says, contains 3,000 verses that mention the poor.
"How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American?" he writes in "God's Politics."
Among other initiatives in the evangelical community, Call to Renewal, the anti-poverty advocacy group Wallis heads, is working with other religious groups on the issue of achieving a "living wage" for low-income workers, through increases in the minimum wage and the earned-income tax credit.
For the sake of political influence, Wallis and others argue that the evangelical vote should not be taken for granted.
That means, they say, that Republicans should not assume evangelicals automatically will vote for them and Democrats should not give up attempts attempting to make inroads among less-conservative religious voters.
Statistically, that's a hard argument to support.
Evangelicals, who make up a quarter of the adult population, favored Bush by 78 percent to 22 percent for Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, according to an analysis of election results by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
That's up from Bush's 71 percent tally among evangelicals in 2000.
"Sure, evangelicals come in all shapes and sizes," said Richard Land, the Washington lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention. "But people of traditional religious values voted for the traditional religious candidate."
Not only does Bush support the religious right's positions against abortion and gay marriage, he speaks openly and comfortably about his faith.
"I think a lot of evangelicals feel at home in the Republican Party," said Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and an advocate of a broader social agenda for evangelicals.
Despite Bush's support within the Christian right, Kerry had an opportunity to win voters in the religious middle ground. But centrists in mainline Protestant denominations and moderate Catholics both swung for Bush, according to John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and an expert on religion and politics.
"The people in the middle were really up for grabs," said Green, who conducted the Pew Forum survey.
Mouw said many moderate evangelicals were receptive to Kerry's stances on Social Security and taxation.
"But he was so far off the chart on other issues," said Mouw, referring to such positions as Kerry's opposition to the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which would prohibit same-sex marriage.
In one of the strongest signs that evangelicals are expanding their political horizons, the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 45,000 congregations and independent ministries, approved a lengthy statement of principles last fall that goes far beyond the usual family-values topics.
"The Bible makes it clear that God cares a great deal about the well-being of marriage, the family, the sanctity of human life, justice for the poor, care for creation, peace, freedom and racial justice," the statement asserts.
The document is a continuation of the group's 10-year effort to broaden its agenda, said Richard Cizik, the association's vice president for governmental affairs.
Lobbyist Land, a prominent conservative evangelical spokesman, said he rejects Wallis' contention that the religious right has overlooked poverty.
The problem, he said, is Wallis favors a return to the big-government programs of the past.
"I don't know anybody who's pro-poverty," Land said.
The importance of religion in politics was demonstrated by exit polls on Election Day, which found that moral values in some cases outweighed the war in Iraq or the economy as the crucial factor in why voters supported one candidate over the other.
The lesson Democrats took from that result was they had to become more comfortable with employing the language of faith in talking about issues.
That was apparent in the response to Bush's State of the Union address this month by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., when he said that Social Security, the economy and education are about more than money.
"Really, these are questions about our old-fashioned moral values that don't get talked about much in Washington, but matter so much to our country," he said.
"Do we believe that big corporations with powerful lobbyists should get special favors and that the wealthiest should get special tax breaks? Or do we believe we are all God's children and that each of us should get a fair shot and a say in our future?"
Even more telling, perhaps, was the position that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., recently laid out in a speech that many saw as a bid to make herself more attractive to centrists should she run for president in 2008.
Abortion-rights advocates should respect the deeply held beliefs of abortion opponents, she said, and seek areas of agreement to promote policies that reduce unwanted pregnancies or make adoption more attractive.
But she stopped well short of abandoning her basic support for a woman's right to an abortion.
"She's got a long ways to go," Cizik said.
"You can't just talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk. You have to change your policy positions," Cizik said.
Many Democrats still see winning votes among conservative Christians as a losing effort. But University of Akron political scientist John Green disagrees.
"Democrats say `We're never going to win the religious right, so why should we try?'" Green said. "And the answer is that you don't need the religious right because there are these centrist people who could make a difference."
© 2005, Chicago Tribune.
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