Evangelicals' new face

The Baltimore Sun

If you think that evangelical Christians vote automatically for the Republican Party and are obsessed with abortion and gay marriage to the exclusion of other issues, you haven't been paying attention.

A major new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life confirms what many of us see around the country. It says Americans are on the move religiously, and many people are not staying in the churches of their upbringing.

But where are they going? What we have perceived for a long time is backed by the data - namely, that evangelical churches are growing, especially congregations that are "nondenominational" or "unaffiliated." But as a CNN report on the survey suggested, the evangelical constituency is "splintering" politically.

What is most striking about the Pew survey is that Americans are moving to places where faith is personal. Pew's comprehensive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey demonstrates the attractiveness of more personal, dynamic and vibrant faith communities.

But the old media script is obsolete; previous assumptions no longer hold. A growing evangelical constituency doesn't mean that personal faith equals private faith, equals conservative politics, equals Republican registration. "Evangelical" no longer means "religious right," in the sense of an exclusive focus on abortion and gay marriage.

On the contrary, what I see rising up all around the country is a new evangelical agenda focusing on poverty, the environment and climate change, human rights, the ethics of war and peace - and, yes, the sanctity of human life, but much more broadly.

To these evangelicals, a "pro-life" agenda includes the misery of Darfur and the 30,000 children around the world who died today of totally unnecessary poverty and disease. Why pit unborn children against poor children? We should see them all in the category of the vulnerable that Jesus calls us to defend.

In fact, a new concern for social justice is breaking out precisely at the places and in the people where faith is more personal. They believe that God is personal but never private. And many people are hungry for a faith that is powerful enough to change their lives, their relationships, their neighborhoods, their nation and even their world.

Churches that focus only on theological doctrines, or social principles, will continue to lose people to churches that offer a personal faith that also cares for the world. When faith is no longer restricted to just our private lives but breaks out into the world, new things can happen.

All of this is being borne out in a presidential election year that has proved very different from 2004. It's amazing how much the issue of faith and politics has changed in such a short time. Two fundamental shifts have occurred; taken together, they constitute a sea change in American politics.

First, in what Time called "a leveling of the praying field," Democrats now speak as much about faith and values as Republicans do. Both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have spoken comfortably and authentically about their personal faith and its relationship to public life, and have explicitly connected their faith to a broad range of issues. A recent national survey of "born again" voters by the Barna Group showed that if the election were held today, 40 percent said they would vote for the Democratic nominee and 29 percent for the Republican, with 28 percent still undecided. Clearly, the GOP is no longer "God's own party."

But second, and even more important than the religious identities of candidates and voters, is how the agenda of faith communities has undergone a significant shift. Abortion and gay marriage are clearly not the only overriding "moral issues" for many evangelicals now, though the sanctity of life (more consistently applied) and healthy families (without scapegoats) are still critical concerns. But other key moral and religious issues have taken on great importance.

A CBS poll of evangelicals last fall showed that the top two issues they wanted candidates to talk about were health care and the war in Iraq. Corroborating that, Missouri and Tennessee exit polls on Super Tuesday conducted by Zogby showed that a majority of white evangelicals voting in the Democratic and Republican primaries wanted a broader agenda that went beyond abortion and homosexuality. In both states, jobs and the economy were ranked as the most important issues by voters of both parties.

All of that suggests that moral values will indeed be key criteria for religious and "values voters" this election season, but that the definition and range of those moral values will be much wider and deeper than before. The votes of millions in the faith community are still in play, and the candidate - Democrat or Republican - who more compellingly speaks the language of moral values and seriously addresses the wider and deeper religious agenda will find resonance this year among the faithful.

It is now much clearer that "God is not a Republican or a Democrat," and that is a good thing. There should be no religious litmus tests for politics; committed Christians will, and should be, on both sides of the political aisle.

Indeed, people of faith should never be in any party's or candidate's political pocket. Ideally, they should be the ultimate swing vote - independent of partisan politics, guided instead by their sense of personal morality.

Jim Wallis, author of "The Great Awakening," is president of Sojourners, a progressive Christian ministry. His e-mail is sojourners@sojo.net.

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