Thursday, March 23, 2006
Wallis: Religious Right is losing control
For more than a decade, a series of environmental initiatives have been coming from an unexpected source - a new generation of young evangelical activists. Mostly under the public radar screen, they were covered in places such as Sojourners and Prism, the magazine of Evangelicals for Social Action.
Recently, more establishment evangelical groups, especially the National Association of Evangelicals, also began to speak up on the issue of creation care. Leading the way was Rich Cizik, NAE Vice President for Governmental Affairs, who, on issues like environmental concern and global poverty reduction, began to sound like the biblical prophet Amos. Cizik and NAE President Ted Haggard, a megachurch pastor in Colorado Springs, were attending critical seminars on the environment and climate change in particular and describing their experiences of "epiphany" and "conversion" on the issue. Cizik was quoted by The New York Times as saying, "I don't think God is going to ask us how he created the earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created." In 2004, the NAE adopted a new policy statement, "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility," which included a principle titled "We labor to protect God's creation."
In January, the Religious Right reared its head. In a letter addressed to the NAE - signed by 22 of the Right's prominent leaders, including James Dobson, Charles Colson, Richard Land, and Louis Sheldon - they said, "We have appreciated the bold stance that the National Association of Evangelicals has taken on controversial issues like embracing a culture of life, protecting traditional marriage and family." They then went on to say, "We respectfully request, however, that the NAE not adopt any official position on the issue of global climate change. Global warming is not a consensus issue." It was a clear effort to prevent the NAE from taking a stand on environmental issues and even to veto the whole effort. Stick to our core issues, they implied - meaning abortion and gay marriage. Five years ago, so powerful a group of conservative Christian leaders probably could have tamped down this new evangelical effort that served to broaden the range of moral values and issues of biblical concern. But not this time.
A month later, on Feb. 9, a full page ad appeared in The New York Times with the headline: "Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis." The striking ad announced the Evangelical Climate Initiative, and was signed by 86 prominent evangelical leaders, including the presidents of 39 Christian colleges. I was speaking at one of those schools shortly after the ad came out and talked to their president who was one of the signers. "I'm tired of those old white guys telling us what to think and do," he said. He is a younger white man who decided to take a stand, even if it was against the old guard of the Religious Right.
The Evangelical Climate Initiative is of enormous importance and could be a tipping point in the climate change debate, according to one secular environmental leader I talked to. But of even wider importance, these events signal a sea change in evangelical Christian politics: The Religious Right is losing control. They have now lost control on the environmental issue - caring for God's creation is now a mainstream evangelical issue, especially for a new generation of evangelicals. But now so is sex trafficking, the genocide in Darfur, the pandemic of HIV/AIDS and, of course, global and domestic poverty. The call to overcome extreme poverty abroad and at home, in the world's richest nation, is becoming a new altar call around the world - a principal way Christians are deciding to put their faith into practice.
In places such as the U.K., Christians are rallying around the call to "Make Poverty History." Many are comparing that call to the cry of British Parliamentarian William Wilberforce and an earlier generation of evangelical revivalists in the 18th and 19th centuries who changed history in England and America by their steadfast commitment to end slavery. For many, poverty is the new slavery. Again, this is especially true for a new generation of Christians. The connection between poverty and all the other key issues - the environment, HIV/AIDS, and violent conflicts around the world are increasingly clear for many people of faith.
The sacredness of life and family values are deeply important to these Christians as well - yet too important to be used as partisan wedge issues that call for single issue voting patterns that ignore other critical biblical matters. The Religious Right has been able to win when they have been able to maintain and control a monologue on the relationship between faith and politics. But when a dialogue begins about the extent of moral values issues and what biblically-faithful Christians should care about, the Religious Right begins to lose. The best news of all for the American church and society is this: The monologue of the Religious Right is over, and a new dialogue has just begun.
Dave Haigler, Abilene, Texas
lawfirm webpage: www.haigler.info
political blog: http://demlog.blogspot.com
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