Themba Hadebe  /  AP file
Former President Jimmy Carter helped build low-income housing in Durban, South Africa, in 2002. Carter, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, left the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention several years ago, fed up with its domination by the religious right.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 6/9/2005 2:46:36 PM ET 2005-06-09T18:46:36

When thousands of Southern Baptists gather later this month in Nashville for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, former President Jimmy Carter, one of the world’s most famous Baptists, will not be there. He broke with the convention several years ago, distressed at its takeover by conservative Christian fundamentalists beginning in 1979.

In an interview last year with Newsweek , Carter bemoaned the “melding ... between the Republican Party and the more conservative Christians,” saying: “This is not only an anomaly, but I think is contrary to the best interests of our democratic principles.”

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest evangelical Christian denomination in the world. Its alliance with political conservatives is just one part of the American evangelical community’s popular identification with the Republican Party, whose rise has been fueled by its identification with the religious right.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, perhaps the most widely recognized conservative religious spokesman, is also an important evangelical figure, preaching from the pulpit of a Southern Baptist church in Virginia. So is the Rev. Pat Robertson, whose network gave birth to the Christian Coalition. So is James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, who is considered the most influential evangelical figure in America.

Most famously, President Bush, whose own religious story has never been fully told , has long targeted his message to conservative evangelicals.

“People like Karl Rove and people like Ralph Reed have done a brilliant job of wedding the evangelical community to the Republican Party,” said Tony Campolo, a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton in the White House. “And so when you begin to think about evangelicals, you begin to think in terms of the values of the right wing of the Republican Party.”

Finding evangelicals outside the box
Like Jimmy Carter, Tony Campolo is a tireless campaigner for social justice, especially for the poor, for the environment and for oppressed populations in the Third World. Like Carter, he is also an evangelical Christian — a Baptist minister, in fact.

Although many Americans see evangelicalism as a monolithic construct, “in reality, there are a whole lot of us evangelicals who think differently,” said Campolo, who founded the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education.

Campolo puts the proportion of “progressive” or liberal American evangelicals at 35 percent to 40 percent. Other scholars say that is probably too high; the leading authority on religious populations in America, John Green of the University of Akron in Ohio, puts it closer to 20 percent.

Whoever is correct, one thing is clear: There are millions of progressive evangelicals. And yet, the conventional wisdom resolves to a very simple equation: “Evangelical” = “religious right.”

That may gall progressive evangelicals, who are proud of their heritage at the forefront of  campaigns for civil rights, racial justice and religious diversity, but the turnout of religious voters for Bush exemplifies the attraction they feel to core Republican principles, said Paul Hetrick, vice president of Focus on the Family.

“‘Evangelical,’ along with ‘moral’ or ‘values’ voter and voting surged into the lexicon and consciousness in expanded ways in 2004,” he said in an e-mail interview, “most especially as such voters were seen to have significantly influenced and impacted the November election results.”

A simple message filtered through a compliant press
But if you ask the Rev. Daniel Vestal, that’s just the other side’s admission that it hijacked the debate. Vestal is coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an association of moderate Baptists that split off from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1991 and has grown to more than 1,800 member churches in less than 15 years.

“The more conservative wing of the evangelical movement has already had an impact ... particularly centered around same-sex marriage and abortion,” Vestal said in an interview. While he said “it’s a good thing that people of evangelical faith” are part of the public debate, “I think it’s bad in that sometimes people other than evangelical Christians identify evangelical Christians only by those issues.”

Another culprit is the American media culture, which does not work hard enough to delineate the variety of thought among evangelicals.

“I think there’s a certain bias in the broader secular media world against evangelicals that kind of enjoys making us look silly,” said Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action. “Nobody does that much better than Falwell, and so Falwell gets enormous press, even though ... the vast majority of the evangelical center and progressives — which is to say more than half of evangelicals — are regularly embarrassed by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.”

The mushy middle
At its core, evangelicalism stresses a mystical relationship with Jesus, usually reached through a conversion experience, and belief in the biblical account of the crucifixion and resurrection. And it is rooted in a close and careful reading of the Bible. That does not mean that an evangelical necessarily takes the Bible literally, but many do.

Evangelicalism is best seen, then, as a set of general beliefs, not a set of rules. In effect, you are an evangelical if you say you are an evangelical. And that has little to do with politics.

For more than two years, Sider was co-director of a project of the National Association of Evangelicals that led to the publication of “For the Health of the Nation,” a statement signed by nearly 200 evangelical leaders calling for American evangelicals to rededicate themselves to social justice ministry .

“What I truly try to do is say I have no absolute commitment except to Jesus Christ and the full biblical revelation,” he said. “With regard to the sanctity of human life and the family, I’m clearly not liberal in any kind of current meaning — I’m a conservative. When it comes to economic justice for the poor and peacemaking and creation care, I’m progressive or liberal.”

Nancy T. Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University, said that could describe many evangelicals. They occupy a great “muddled middle” in which they see some of their concerns — abortion and homosexuality, for example — reflected in conservative politics but don’t see an equal reflection of their commitment to biblical ideas of social justice.

“When you look at the polling data,” she said, “you’ve got these people who are anti-abortion and pro-environment and concerned about poverty, and, you know, they’re all evangelicals, and what are we going to call these people?”

Jesus as a radical
“In a nutshell, we hold to the same kinds of theology. We just read the Bible differently than our right-wing friends. When we read the Bible, we see a Jesus who is much more radical,” Campolo said.

Where he and other progressives see Jesus most differently is in the importance placed on compassionate treatment for the underdogs in society.

Sider said it was true that evangelicals were “theologically orthodox ... and we agree it’s important that we retain the historic definition of marriage in society, and we agree that practicing homosexuality is contrary to God’s will.”

But “the problem with Dobson is he’s so narrowly focused on a couple of issues,” Sider said. “The Bible says that God is concerned about the sanctity of human life and the poor, about the family and racial justice and creation care. And so any faithful Christian will have that biblically balanced agenda.”

Hetrick argued, however, that such a picture of Focus on the Family springs from a distorted obsession with its political outreach.

“Focus is perceived in the minds of many — especially those on the left — as being against abortion, homosexual marriage, pornography, etc. — as though that is the sum and substance of all that comprises Focus on the Family,” he said. “But in fact, Focus spends only about 5 percent of its time and resources on such matters as public policy issues. The [other] 95 percent of our activities (though less infused with hot news value) are in the family nurturing arena.”

Campolo praised the good works done by Focus and other conservative evangelical groups, saying he believed they acted from a sincere faith. With its soup kitchens and tutoring programs, he said, “the religious right is doing a great job with the poor.”

But while “we see some very good people who are doing a very loving thing in reaching out to people at the grass-roots level,” he added, “they’re not really asking the kinds questions that need to be asked about the policies our government has that in many cases have facilitated poverty.”

Abandoning politics
If leaders of the progressive evangelical movement had their way, social activism would be divorced from politics. They envision a day when all of the awesome organizational skills and economic power of the conservative evangelical structure could be brought to bear on feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and leveling the uneven playing field of modern society.

There is a base to build on, because so much of liberal evangelical thought grows out of very conservative theological philosophies. Campolo allowed, in fact, that “when I look at the Republican Party, there’s much about their agenda that I embrace.”

But “it’s time for us to stand up and say Jesus is not a Republican; Jesus is not a Democrat,” he said. “I hope that the answer to the religious right is not to create a religious left in which we get a bunch of Christians who are saying if you don’t vote Democratic, you’re out of the will of God.”

Vestal, of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said evangelicals should be willing “to work with everybody who would come together around a common vision. We’re going to have differences, even among evangelicals, but we can have basic agreement. I think we can find greater togetherness. I really do.

“... I think we’re at the dawn of a new day in the body of Christ in North America. I think evangelicals are going to be a part of that,” he said. “Frankly, your Catholics and your mainline Protestants have been far ahead of evangelicals in social commitment and social activism and ecumenism. But I think in some ways evangelicalism is coming of age.”

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