The Common Good
March 2004

Evangelical Social Conscience

by Jim Wallis | March 2004

Our new field organizer for Call to Renewal was working the room at a conference
of leaders of local councils of churches and interfaith organizations from around
the country.

Our new field organizer for Call to Renewal was working the room at a conference of leaders of local councils of churches and interfaith organizations from around the country. I saw how pleased these slightly aging ecumenical leaders from mostly mainline Protestant churches were to have such an impressive young Christian woman among them, and one so passionate about the mission of overcoming poverty.

But as they got to know Christa Mazzone, they learned she is not the predictably liberal social gospel Christian one used to find at such conferences. Instead, this 23-year-old Christian activist quietly talks about what "the Lord" is doing in her life and prayerfully considers what God might have in mind for her vocation.

Christa is an evangelical Christian, one who could never separate her faith in Jesus Christ from her commitment to social justice. Actually, it would never even occur to her. She is exemplary of a new generation of evangelical Christians for whom social activism is the natural outgrowth of personal faith. I first met Christa when I was speaking at her school, which, like a growing number of evangelical Christian campuses, has social justice increasingly built into the curriculum - even more so than their secular university counterparts.

RECENTLY I PARTICIPATED in a three-day gathering of church leaders that brought evangelicals and pentecostals together with Catholics, Orthodox, and mainline Protestants. It was the kind of broad interdenominational and cross-confessional table that America has rarely seen, but is now coming together. One clear consensus among the church leaders was on the centrality of the issue of poverty. During the proceedings, one of the nation's most prominent pentecostal leaders asked me if I thought evangelical and pentecostal Christians were developing a deeper social conscience. I could tell that he thought so and hoped that I did too. When I told him I absolutely agreed that leaders from his tradition, especially the younger generation, were undergoing a real social transformation on issues of compassion and justice, a big smile broke out across his face.

The conventional wisdom still says that liberal Christians have a social conscience and evangelicals do not, preferring instead to focus only on the personal morality of issues such as abortion and homosexuality. The media in particular keep that perception alive.

But the big story that most of the press (including the religious press) continue to miss is how much that reality is changing. On at least three key social issues - poverty, race, and the environment - evangelicals are exhibiting a growing conviction and conscience. In local congregations, poor neighborhoods, and legislative halls, a new evangelical activism and advocacy is emerging.

ONE AREA WHERE that new evangelical social conscience is clearly on the rise is on the environment, or the stewardship of creation, as many Christians would name it. One sign of the new Christian insurgency on ecology was the highly controversial campaign that asked the provocative question, "What would Jesus drive?" Challenging the nation's addiction to SUVs and their consequent emissions that pollute the air is not something evangelical Christians would have been expected to lead. But they did. As I survey the list of new Christian organizations and campaigns that focus on environmental stewardship, I observe that most of them have been founded by evangelicals - young evangelicals.

This special issue of Sojourners is focused on the environment and the increasing Christian activism - much of it evangelical - that is rising up to offer new leadership. It may well be that only theology - good theology - can save the Earth now. And the fact that a new generation of Christians is offering an environmental social conscience is a sign of hope indeed. n

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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