The Common Good
November 2008

The Meaning of 'Life'

by Jim Rice, Jeannie Choi | November 2008

Once thought to be in the pocket of the Religious Right, many American evangelicals today are discovering a deeper understanding of what it means to be pro-life.

Joshua Hopping of Sweet, Idaho, helped put George W. Bush in the White House, and four years later helped keep him there. As an evangelical Christian, Hopping was part of the so-called “values voters” bloc that some pundits credit with Bush’s electoral success. But this year, Hopping isn’t a lock to support the Republican ticket. He says he’s open to consider which candidate best embodies his Christian values—and that very openness represents what could be one of the most significant shifts in this election season, because evangelicals, especially those under 30, are no longer a safe bet to vote for the furthest-right option on the ballot.

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Why the loosening of party attachment? The questions that matter most to Hopping, 28, aren’t as narrowly defined as they used to be. He says he’ll be paying close attention to what the candidates are saying about the issues most important to him, which now include not only abortion and same-sex marriage but also the environment, poverty, and immigration—“and that’s not even counting the war in Iraq, health care, social security, and all those other things that are important,” Hopping told Sojourners. Looking at the records of the two parties on those issues, Hopping says, gave him pause about the unquestioned convictions he held in the past. “I said, ‘wait a minute,’ I want to take another look and see who’s out there, who actually cares about life beyond the womb.” Hopping says this line of thinking feels outside of his conservative comfort zone, but he cannot ignore his new convictions, particularly about the environment.

“Eight years ago, I began working in the environmental field, and it really hit me that God tells us to take care of the environment. The more I read the Bible, I see that the environment affects the poor, the young, and the old—the same people God said to go reach,” he says.

While Hopping may seem like an anomaly, recent reports show that he is not alone. “Since about 2005 we have seen a sharp decline in the number of people calling themselves Republicans,” reported Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, based on surveys released in early September. “Evangelical voters have displayed a great deal of dissatisfaction with the current state of things, including the Republican Party,” said John C. Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

And while polls showed a surge of evangelical support for the Republican ticket after the nomination of Sarah Palin, Keeter said that it was unlikely to last: “Some of what we are seeing now may be, if not ephemeral, subject to change with further events in the campaign.”

Since there has not been a correlating increase in young evangelical affiliation with the Democratic Party, some observers feel that the evangelical vote is much less predictable than in years past—and may hinge on the question of whether a narrow concept of what it means to affirm life is enough.

To get a better picture of how evangelical views are changing, Sojourners interviewed 21 people from nine cities—including Seattle; Columbus, Ohio; Boston; Leawood, Kansas; Atlanta; Houston; Pittsburgh, and Boise, Idaho—representing six different ethnicities and ranging from ages 26 to 66. The conversations suggested a significant shift in evangelical viewpoint—a transformation with the potential to shake up not only political assumptions but the very face of evangelicalism in the years to come.

Upholding All Life

For most evangelicals, being “pro-life” continues to be the central factor in their political discernment. That fact has led some political observers to declare that evangelicals will once again support the Republican ticket this fall in overwhelming numbers (in 2004, George Bush won 79 percent of the 26.5 million evangelical votes, according to exit polling).

But this year, many evangelicals, especially among those born since the 1970s, are coming to understand “pro-life” in broader ways, and the impact of that new perspective remains to be seen. As Time Magazine’s Amy Sullivan put it in early September, “While Palin is inspiring rhapsodies from the lions of the Christian right, her appeal to more moderate and younger evangelicals—as well as independent swing voters—may be limited.”

For instance, a self-described anti-abortion evangelical commenting on “Jesus Creed,” a leading blog of the emergent church, wrote that policies that fight poverty, work for health-care justice, and generally improve economic conditions for poor and working-class people will likely result in the number of abortions decreasing much more than under an administration that simply declares itself opposed to Roe vs. Wade—and thus supporting the former initiatives should arguably be considered more “pro-life” than the latter.

Those efforts to address the root factors that have been shown to contribute to increased numbers of abortions—“abortion-reduction” measures—speak to the desire of many evangelicals to move from divisive rhetoric about abortion to actual results. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resur­rection outside of Kansas City, Kansas, says a key question is, “‘Are you interested in actually reducing the number of abortions even if you can’t completely sway people to your opinion?’ I think that’s where the abortion debate needs to move.”

The abortion-reduction issue became a focal point at both of the national conventions this summer, with the parties moving in opposite directions. The Democrats, pushed by evangelicals, Catholics, and others, added abortion-reduction language to their platform: “We also recognize that ... health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions. The Demo­cratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.”

The Republican Party, on the other hand, took a step back from abortion-reduction language. As The Wall Street Journal put it, “For all their pro-life pieties, the Republicans at this year’s convention, while asserting their opposition to Roe, dropped platform language that invited ‘all persons of good will, whether across the political aisle or within our party, to work together to reduce the incidence of abortion.’”

Commenting on the party platforms, Cameron Strang, editor of Relevant Magazine, said that commitments to reduce the number of abortions could appeal to young evangelicals who have a more “holistic” view of the meaning of “pro-life.”

For some evangelicals, even those who consider themselves strongly pro-life, the issue of abortion doesn’t have a lot of influence on how they vote in presidential elections. For example, Bo Lim, a member of Quest Church in Seattle, said that abortion, along with several other moral concerns, “don’t rise to the top of my list of issues in regard to the election because of the limited role the president or our government can do in regard to these issues.”

EVANGELICALS ACROSS the country tell stories of their own transformation from a narrow concern for one or two issues to a broader understanding of the Christian call. Eugene Cho in many ways exemplifies these “new evangelicals.”

When Cho started Seattle’s Quest Church in 2001, he began with a handful of people meeting in his living room. Quest Church has grown to a congregation of more than 500 members, many of them young evangelical Christ­ians.

“Personally, I don’t want to be defined by one or two issues,” Cho says. “Obviously two of the bigger issues that are highlighted by certain groups of the Christian segment are gay marriage and abortion. And while I acknowledge that they are important to me, I simply don’t elevate them over other issues. I must juxtapose them with the war in Iraq, local and global poverty, and human rights.”

That opinion is shared by Rich Nathan, pastor of Vineyard Church of Columbus in Columbus, Ohio, and host of last spring’s Justice Revival, co-sponsored by Sojourners. As the pastor of one of the largest churches in the Vineyard movement, with more than 6,500 members, Nathan considers the importance of the sanctity of life and the “least of these” when thinking about the upcoming elections.

“I believe that the measure of a culture is how we treat the weakest person in the culture, the most defenseless,” Nathan says. As a result, a serious abortion-reduction plan remains one of the most important issues for Nathan as he decides whom to vote for in November. But the weakest and most defenseless people in a culture do not only include unborn children, Nathan says.

“God is always on the side of the marginalized, the people who are the weakest and poorest. That includes the unborn and their mothers, but it also includes people who lack health insurance and folks who can’t find jobs in a global economy. It includes children and women who are being trafficked into sex slavery, and it includes the people of Darfur,” Nathan told Sojourners.

This broader perspective has loosened party attachment for many evangelicals. As Marlon Hall, pastor of The Awakenings Movement, a Houston church, put it, “I’m not voting for a candidate or a party; I’m voting for principles.”

Similarly, for Teresa Norman, a member of Cho’s Seattle congregation, being pro-life is more than just a side to take in the abortion debate; rather, it is a consistent ethic with which to consider other issues.

“To be consistently pro-life would mean being pro-everyone’s-life, not just the lives of the unborn and not just those who are demographically, economically, racially, culturally, or religiously similar to us,” she says.

The Impact of the War

Support for the sanctity of life affects the views of many evangelicals on the Iraq war. That’s the case for Sokol Haxhi­nasto, a member of Park Street Church, a historic evangelical church in Boston, founded in 1809, where William Lloyd Gar­rison delivered his first major public address against slavery. Since 2003, Haxhinasto has been dismayed by America’s presence in Iraq.

“From the Christian point of view, the war does not send a message of loving your enemies,” Haxhinasto, a doctoral student at Harvard Medical School, told Sojourners. “The war is certainly not pro-life, and so I wonder, how can you be pro-life on abortion and then go into a war that isn’t pro-life?”

Pat McWherter, a member of Vineyard Church of Columbus and a retired Vietnam War veteran, agrees. For McWherter, his Christian convictions and his firsthand experience with war are enough for him to believe that the war in Iraq must end.

“We got into the Iraq war, right or wrong, and now we have an obligation to develop and execute a political and military endgame that will ensure that the Iraqi people have a stable and viable government to conduct their country’s affairs and provide for their sovereignty,” McWherter asserts. “Once accomplished, U.S. troops should be compelled to come home.”

Haxhinasto and McWherter are not lone voices for peace in the evangelical community. For Cho, dissatisfaction with the Iraq war grew over time. “This issue has become increasingly important over the last four years,” Cho says. “I am eager to carefully scrutinize not only the respective candidates’ views on the war, but their overall vision in engaging the larger world—both friend and foe.”

That raises an issue that many evangelicals consider equally important to a timely exit from Iraq: fostering improved relations around the world. For Dan Ra, 26, a member of The Living Room, an emergent community in Atlanta, U.S. foreign policy in recent years has altered his political perspective. “Eight years ago I was a freshman in college, and I didn’t know who to vote for,” Ra says. “Most of my Christian friends were voting for Bush and my non-Christian friends were voting for Gore, and I guessed it would have been appropriate to vote for Bush, since I had aligned with what my Christian friends believed. Since then, though, the more aware I became, the more upset I became.”

Ra says that he’s “tired” of U.S. militarism. “I am tired of an America that plays the bully,” he says. “America needs to re-establish itself as a fair country, and what we’re doing in Iraq and what we’re not doing in Sudan, and what we’re not doing even in our own country by not closing down Guantanamo Bay, is sending a message to the rest of the world that we are a bunch of militaristic cowboys.”

For Nathan, pastor of the Columbus Vineyard church, improved foreign relations is as much a concern for the church as it is a concern for the government, and he says he’s troubled by “surveys that the rest of the world hold America in almost complete disdain. We rank lower than China and Russia across the globe as threats to global peace. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult for American missionaries to gain a hearing in and around the world, particularly in Muslim countries.” Missionaries recently came to Nathan to plead with him to tell American Christians to have a more balanced perspective regarding Middle Eastern policy, and particularly to urge Americans to care about the rights of Palestinians. For too long, Nathan says, U.S. Christians have maintained a narrow view of the world. Today, their ideas of justice and mercy must expand beyond this continent, into the furthest reaches of the world.

“I am a citizen of the kingdom and a citizen of the world before I am a citizen of America,” he says. “As a Christian, I can’t think only in terms of narrow American self-interest. I really do need to think about what will promote the kingdom of God and God’s agenda.”

Caring for All Creation

Considering oneself a citizen of the world, as Nathan says, has compelled many evangelicals to also view the environment as an important issue for the upcoming election—an issue that has, until recently, been largely considered a “liberal” cause. For many evangelicals, caring for the creation is inextricably linked to God’s mandate to Adam and Eve in Genesis.

“Creation care has certainly grown to become an issue of greater importance for me, more so than previous elections,” says Jason Chatraw, a member of Vineyard Boise church in Boise, Idaho, “but it has for every candidate in every local, state, and national election—which I believe is a good thing and probably a result of the growing number of evangelicals involved in this movement.”

Hamilton, Church of the Resur­rection pastor in Kansas, sees this election as an important opportunity to address issues of waste and consumption in the United States. “People want to think differently about the environment, and it’s a wonderful moment to retrain people’s habits,” Hamilton says.

Tri Robinson, pastor of Vineyard Boise, began to see environmental matters in a new light after an eventful conversation with his two young-adult children. “They came to me and said, as Christians, they had nobody to vote for,” Robinson remembers. “On the one hand, they would have to vote against the sanctity of life, and on the other hand, they would have to vote against caring for the environment.” This conversation launched Robinson into a deep and careful look into the scriptures, where he was surprised to find an overwhelming call from God for creation care. This led to his writing several books about the Christian call to creation care, including Saving God’s Green Earth: Rediscovering the Church’s Responsibility to Environ­mental Stewardship.

Several formative trips he took to Burma from 1982 to 1985 also informed Robinson’s understanding that the issue of creation care was linked to problems of poverty and even human sex trafficking in developing nations abroad. “There wasn’t a bird chirping or one moving or living thing in that land,” Robinson says, “and I realized that a bad environment leads to polluted water, which leads to infant mortality, world hunger, illiteracy, and even human trafficking in the face of a dying economy. You can’t deal with isolated issues. All of these problems are related.”

An Interconnected World

Robinson represents many of the new evangelical voters who are coming out of their conservative traditions and challenging themselves to see the world in a different way—as a world where one issue is connected to another through a series of systems. The fragile environment contributes to a broken economic system that creates a society of haves and have-nots. The resulting injustice is what is compelling most, if not all, of these new evangelical voters to look beyond wedge issues to fight for the rights of all people.

Social justice, then, remains at the heart of the new evangelical voters’ focus in this election year, as demonstrated by Irene Yoon, a member of Quest Church in Seattle and a fervent advocate of efforts to help African peacekeepers in Darfur and to aid people in North Korea, China, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere.

“We must pursue justice to the best of our ability in our day-to-day lives. As we must love our neighbors, to me, that means taking care of each other,” Yoon says. Caring for our local and global neighbors is a more vital role for government to play than policing the issues of gay marriage and abortion, she says, which are personal issues between individuals and God. “God decides in the end who is righteous and who is not.”

For Emily Brixius, a church mate of Yoon’s at Quest Church, one of the key ways to care for our neighbors is adequate health care for all. “I really view health care as a moral issue,” says Brixius, 27. “If a country is going to uphold an ethic of life, then health care has to be a part of that.” Christian Chin, another member of Quest Church, agrees that access to health care is a central moral issue for Christians. “It’s a disgrace that nearly 50 million people do not have any coverage in a nation as wealthy as ours,” Chin says. “We need universal health care now.”

Nimma Bhusri, a member of The Vineyard Church of Ohio, thinks that issues such as the global AIDS crisis, genocide in Darfur, and particularly child prostitution and human trafficking are important to consider in the upcoming elections, a realization she has come to in her own devotional life and in her career as a fashion designer.

“Living in central Ohio can become a bubble, but Darfur has been a huge issue that has been on the radar. I’ve been much more exposed to the cause, and also to the cause of human trafficking,” Bhusri says. “Therefore, I understand that even though I am a fashion designer in Ohio, I am responsible for AIDS in Africa and for caring for the global poor.”

“Social injustice is near to the heart of God,” explains Chatraw of Vineyard Boise. “It’s when as a Christian that I feed the poor, tend to the sick, and care for the orphans and widows that I fully embody the love of Christ.”

It is precisely this inclusive thinking that exemplifies the remarkable transformation that has come over a demographic whose votes in previous elections were predictably based upon two wedge issues. Many evangelicals today are no longer comfortable voting on a narrow understanding of what constitutes a “pro-life” stance.

“God is always on the side of life,” Rich Nathan insists. “Jesus said, ‘I am not only the truth, but I am the life.’ And so we always press for the preservation of life. We always press toward the inclusion of our neighbors.”

Jim Rice is editor and Jeannie Choi assistant editor of Sojourners. For exclusive audio clips of our interviewees, click here.

What About ‘The Catholic Vote’?

Catholic voters make up roughly 18 percent of the U.S. electorate, and they are a key voting bloc in every election. Histor­ically Catholics as a group voted strongly Democratic, but since the 1970s the “Catholic bloc” has become more fluid, particularly among white, non-Latino Catholics. This year, the group is divided almost evenly, with 45 percent supporting John McCain and 44 percent favoring Barack Obama, according to an August 2008 Pew Forum survey.

While a narrow focus on overturning Roe vs. Wade is still a litmus-test voting issue for some Catholics, many others are concerned more broadly with “what protects or threatens human life and human dignity,” as the U.S. Catholic bishops state it in their “Faithful Citizenship” voters guide. Catholic leaders have long advocated an approach that holds abortion as part of “consistent ethic of life” issues, including capital punishment, social injustice, and poverty.

Brian Staskowski, a 31-year-old engineer in Pittsburgh, believes his Catholic values compel him to look beyond the wedge issue of abortion and consider other social issues. “The Catholic mainstay of abortion as a wedge issue is still important to me, but you also can’t mistreat the elderly or the poor by not providing a way to get proper health care,” Staskow­ski told Sojourners. “It’s very naive to focus on one issue as a litmus test to inform an entire election.”

Rami Baalbaki, a 30-year-old from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, told Sojourners, “A pro-life candidate is very important to me.” But, Baalbaki added, “Abortion’s not a unilateral thing; there’s a lot of things that factor in—economic issues, social issues can have an impact on abortion, so it’s a complicated issue.” As a voter, then, Balbaaki is always looking for one quality to emerge from either candidate: honor for the dignity of every person.

“The dignity of the human person is something that is 100 percent certain,” Baalbaki said. “Every person, no matter who they are, has a dignity because they are created in the image of God. So you have to ask yourself, how do we honor that dignity?” —JC

Sojourners Readers Weigh In

Evangelical members of the Sojourners online constituency named poverty, peace, and health care as the issues they are most concerned about.

Top social/political concern?

27% Poverty

12% War & Peace

11% Health Care

9% Consistent Ethic of Life

8% Human Rights

From a September 2008 survey of 1,505 Sojourners online readers.



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