Evangelicals broaden their moral agenda
Evangelical Christian leaders are tackling a growing list of domestic and international issues, such as genocide in Darfur and global warming, despite dissension in their ranks over whether this broader moral agenda will dilute their political power just before crucial elections.
Yesterday, two dozen prominent evangelicals issued a joint appeal for President Bush to take the lead in sending a multinational, U.N.-backed peacekeeping force into the Darfur region of Sudan. They included not just liberal religious leaders but also several notable conservatives, including the Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Today, another broad coalition of evangelical leaders will begin airing advertisements on Christian radio stations calling for action to address climate change. Among them is the new president of the Christian Coalition, who has said he plans to "rebuild and rebrand" the conservative lobbying group.
These initiatives do not sit well with some grass-roots religious conservatives, who prefer to keep the focus on a tighter range of issues, principally opposition to abortion and same-sex unions.
"This new vision, taking on these liberal issues, was the straw that broke the camel's back for us," said John W. Giles, president of Christian Action Alabama, which was the Alabama branch of the Christian Coalition before it broke away from the national organization last month.
"When we heard the new president talking about his opposition to the death penalty and support for raising the minimum wage, we decided it was time to say, 'Hi-ho, Silver!' " Giles said.
The Christian Coalition's new president, the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, pastor of a megachurch in Longwood, Fla., declined to be interviewed. The chairwoman, Roberta Combs, said the board of directors has not taken a position on global warming, the death penalty or the minimum wage.
Although Hunter was listed on the Darfur appeal and the global-warming initiative as the Christian Coalition's president, he "is doing that sort of as an individual," Combs said. "These are his personal feelings." She added that the board plans to survey supporters before taking new stands.
"We will never leave our core issues, never," Combs said. "But as more people get involved and as younger people get involved, there are other issues that come to the forefront, and we will be open-minded to take a look at them."
Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., pastor of Hope Christian Church, a 3,000-member congregation in Lanham, was among the signers of the Darfur appeal. He said he knows that some evangelicals are concerned that their clout will diminish if they take on too many issues. But, like Combs, he pointed to the need to address subjects that matter to young Christians.
"I think you could call this a PR problem, because young people who are very involved in their churches understand the passion for these two issues," he said, referring to abortion and same-sex marriage, "but in the culture at large we can come across as wild-eyed bigots to some because we have only emphasized these things."
Broadening the agenda, "not to 99 things but to five or six core things," such as fighting poverty and providing aid to Africa, "helps improve our image and more accurately reflects the full panoply of our beliefs," Jackson said. "It's hard to say that those two things -- abortion and gay marriage -- are the only things God had in mind in the Bible."
To some evangelicals, however, the new issues are less clear than the old ones, which have led evangelicals to vote overwhelmingly Republican in recent elections.
"I definitely don't like the widening of the agenda, because it muddies the water," said the Rev. Michael Haseltine, pastor of the 2,000-member Maranatha Assembly of God Church in Forest Lake, Minn.
"Be good stewards of the environment? Sure, but how? These tree-huggers and anti-hunters think it's terrible to kill animals. Oppose poverty? Sure, but what's the best way to do it? We can't solve everybody's problems for them," he said. "Family and life issues -- abortion, sexuality -- they're much more clear from the biblical standpoint."
The global-warming radio ads are tied to a documentary film, "The Great Warming," that has been shown in hundreds of churches. "Environmental degradation is an offense against God," the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, says in the film.
Cizik has come under fire for his stand from some conservatives, including James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, who contend that it is uncertain whether global warming is a man-made phenomenon and what to do about it. But the Rev. Pat Robertson, who a year ago criticized the NAE for teaming up with "far-left environmentalists," has changed his mind. "It is getting hotter, and the ice caps are melting, and there is a buildup of carbon dioxide in the air," he said in August.
The Darfur appeal was backed by full-page ads in yesterday's Washington Post and other newspapers, paid for by $575,000 in donations from two individuals who wish to remain anonymous, according to Jack Pannell, spokesman for the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners. "Without you, Mr. President, Darfur does not have a prayer," said the ads, addressing Bush.
"This is an important day. You see evangelical leaders from across the political spectrum coming together to speak as one voice," Jim Wallis, Sojourners' editor, told reporters.
Conservative signers of the appeal made it clear that they did not intend it to be critical of the White House's efforts to end the crisis. "The president really has been doing more than anybody else, but the president cannot do it alone, and America cannot do it alone," said Land, who heads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.