Whenever the word "evangelical" appears in the media, you can be almost certain that it will be synonymous with "conservative" or even "right wing." And while that equation is often true, there are welcome signs that it is changing.
Last fall, the National Association of Evangelicals issued a document resulting from a several-year-long process. "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility" begins with a strong "basis for Christian civic engagement" and then sets forth principles for evangelical engagement in specific areas of public policy.
Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, co-chair of the project, says, "The declaration calls evangelicals to a biblically balanced concern that reflects the full range of Gods concerns for the well-being of marriage, the family, the sanctity of human life, justice for the poor, care for creation, peace, freedom, and racial justice. No longer dare one accuse evangelicals of being one-issue voters focused exclusively on one or two issues."
The "care for creation" is what has drawn the most attention. While groups such as the Evangelical Environmental Network have for years been raising the biblical case for protecting the environment, for the NAE to join adds major credibility to the call. In a section titled "We labor to protect Gods creation," the NAE asserts:
"We are not the owners of creation, but its stewards, summoned by God to watch over and care for it (Genesis 2:15). This implies the principle of sustainability: Our uses of the Earth must be designed to conserve and renew the Earth rather than to deplete or destroy it.... We urge Christians to shape their personal lives in creation-friendly ways: practicing effective recycling, conserving resources, and experiencing the joy of contact with nature. We urge government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats."
IN A NEW YORK TIMES article reporting on the meeting, Rich Cizik, NAE vice president for governmental affairs, is quoted as saying, "I dont think God is going to ask us how he created the earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created." The Times article immediately put the issue of global warming back on the agenda in Washington, D.C. Until now, the global warming constituencies were not thought to be part of the White House or Republican base. But including evangelicals who are part of the Bush base changes all that. When they make global warming and the environment a religious and moral issue, the White House is listening.
And the evangelical statement of concern for environmental sustainability is a direct counterpoint to the fundamentalist stance of those behind the Left Behind book series who treat the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ as an excuse to ignore environmental issues and other concerns about this world. Being good stewards of Gods creation and caring about what happens in all of Gods world is much better theology than the bad eschatology (theology of the end times) that leads to a cop-out of Christian responsibility in the name of alleged biblical prophecy.
The hopeful NAE statement of evangelical social engagement goes beyond environmental responsibility to many other issues as well. In a section titled "We seek justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable," the document says:
"God wants every person and family to have access to productive resources so that if they act responsibly they can care for their economic needs and be dignified members of their community. Christians reach out to help others in various ways: through personal charity, effective faith-based ministries, and other nongovernmental associations, and by advocating for effective government programs and structural changes."
That runs directly against those conservative evangelicals who simply want to blame poverty on the poor, or who say that addressing poverty is a job only for faith-based charities and that government should have no role in poverty reduction - thereby ignoring the biblical role for government, not just the church.
A section called "We work to nurture family life and protect children" similarly notes:
"In order to strengthen the family, we must promote biblical moral principles, responsible personal choices, and good public policies on marriage and divorce law, shelter, food, health care, education, and a family wage (James 5:1-6)."
That suggests that being pro-family also means being for family-friendly public policies, including support for a living family income. You cant be pro-family without being pro-work, and that requires making sure that work "works" and pays for families working responsibly. Families that work hard and full-time in America shouldnt be poor, but many are. The evangelicals behind this document want to change that.
THE SECTION TITLED "We seek peace and work to restrain violence" says: "We urge governments to pursue thoroughly nonviolent paths to peace before resorting to military force. We believe that if governments are going to use military force, they must use it in the service of peace and not merely in their national interest. Military force must be guided by the classical just-war principles, which are designed to restrain violence . We urge followers of Jesus to engage in practical peacemaking locally, nationally, and internationally. As followers of Jesus, we should, in our civic capacity, work to reduce conflict by promoting international understanding and engaging in nonviolent conflict resolution."
The ethics of war - when we go to war, how we go to war, and whether we tell the truth about going to war - are central to religious ethics. The evangelical statement now joins that discussion. There is a longstanding presumption against war in the Christian tradition, and the NAE statement stands firmly in that tradition.
"For the Health of the Nation" is good news for the church and for the nation. And it is good news for a world in need of religious ethics that help us to sustain human life and the whole of Gods creation.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. The NAE statement can be found at www.nae.net.