Evangelical leaders are re-examining whether American evangelicalism has suffered from its portrayal as a conservative political movement rather than as a broad religious philosophy rooted in a close reading of the Bible.
Although evangelical leaders have been among the most prominent spokesmen for conservative causes, “evangelical” and “religious right” are not the same thing. Studies indicate that as many as 40 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelicals are politically moderate or identify with the Democratic Party.
But two recent declarations by evangelical and conservative religious thinkers suggest that evangelicals have become too closely identified with conservative political activism, at the expense of attracting new followers. The declarations are likely to be hot topics of conversation when the Southern Baptist Convention holds its annual meeting next month in Nashville, Tenn.
“Because evangelicals have been portrayed as being very, very limited in their range of societal concerns, there is an element of challenge in the evangelical community to say, ‘Let’s not get caught up in narrow partisan concerns,’” said Mark L. Sargent, provost of Gordon College, a nondenominational Christian institution in Wenham, Mass. “Many evangelicals say they feel very alienated with the partisan rhetoric in the nation.”
Evangelicals seek broader focus
The declarations — a statement of principles by the National Association of Evangelicals and a study of growth in Southern Baptist congregations — serve to crystallize discontent among many evangelical and conservative Christians with their public perception in recent years.
The NAE document, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” was the product of three years of work. It was created by two dozen scholars who bridged the spectrum of conservative to liberal evangelical thought encompassed by the organization’s 45,000 churches, which represent 52 U.S. denominations. It was released in March for general distribution with a book of essays that expanded on its seven main points.
The statement is a diplomatically worded synthesis that reaffirms evangelicals’ traditional opposition to abortion, embryonic stem cell research, pornography and “sexual libertinism.” And it urges evangelicals to remain deeply engaged on those issues.
But “evangelicals have failed to engage with the breadth, depth, and consistency to which we are called,” says the statement. It was signed by nearly 100 of the nation’s most prominent evangelical leaders, among them James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family; Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; Charles Colson, president of the Prison Fellowship ministry; and the Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life.”
Southern Baptists examine evangelism
The NAE statement is being debated simultaneously with a study published this month by theologian Thom S. Rainer, which concluded that the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has fallen into an “evangelistic crisis.”
The Southern Baptist Convention is not a member of the NAE, but it has become predominantly evangelical since 1979.
Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., argues that while the “conservative resurgence” of the last quarter-century has effectively transformed the convention into a theologically purer body, it has failed to attract new followers.
“The Southern Baptist Convention is less evangelistic today than it was in the years preceding the conservative resurgence,” writes Rainer, who found that the denomination’s number of annual baptisms has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s. “We must conclude that the evangelistic growth of the denomination is stagnant, and that the onset of the conservative resurgence has done nothing to improve this trend.”
Rainer’s article supports the campaign for a renewal of broad evangelistic fervor in the denomination by the Rev. Bobby Welch, who was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention last year partly on the strength of his promise to baptize 1 million new Southern Baptists.
The NAE document, meanwhile, calls for social action on issues that, while of great concern to many evangelicals, have been overshadowed in the public arena by hot-button topics like abortion and same-sex marriage. More attention must be paid to employment, labor, housing, health care, education, human rights, racial equality and the environment, it says.
Sargent, of Gordon College, said in an interview that while the NAE statement “brings no surprises,” some of its principles could be difficult to accept for some “on the conservative side of the spectrum.”
“Some of this statement is to challenge the larger evangelical community to have a broader perspective,” he said, and leaders of conservative congregations, especially, “might have to give reasons for why they chose to sign it.”
Most controversially, the NAE statement explicitly throws its weight behind the growing “creation care” environmental movement, which asserts that Christians are stewards of God’s creation. It is led by the Evangelical Environmental Network, best known for its “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign.
“As evangelical leaders, we need to step up to our responsibilities to be leaders in the fight for clean air and water, to stop the burning of rain forests, cruelty to animals, overuse of pesticides, and the countless other issues that result from our consumer-oriented lifestyles,” R. Scott Rodin, former president of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, wrote in the book of essays that accompanied the report.
Many conservative evangelicals have traditionally rejected the environmental movement, both because of its liberal heritage and because of the biblical injunction that Christians should worship the creator, not his creation. Already, the statement has put the NAE at odds with allies of conservative evangelicals in Congress and the Bush administration.
“We want to have a spiritual country, and I would hate to think that we give in, and particularly organizations like the NAE, to a bunch of far-left-wing environmentalists,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said last month in an interview on “The 700 Club,” which airs on the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
The trade journals Inside Fuels & Vehicles and Energy Washington Week, meanwhile, reported that NAE leaders were coming under pressure from the White House, which has pursued increasing drilling for oil and natural gas in previously protected areas.
But Sargent said conservative evangelicals were likely to lose ground in that battle.
“Part of the resistance to creation care has been because of the strong support for capitalism in the Cold War era,” he said. “I think, in an era where the Cold War has faded and capitalism is not pitted so strongly against social issues, there is much less of a desire to embrace capitalism with all of its imperfections and more of a desire to have a responsible capitalism much more alert to the ways in which it can damage things that are important.”
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