A New Social Gospel; Many Evangelicals Are Chafing at the Narrowness of the Religious Right. A New Faith-Based Agenda

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Gerson (Gerson was a speechwriter and policy adviser to President Bush. He now is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a NEWSWEEK contributor.)

During my time in the White House, the most intense and urgent evangelical activism I saw did not come on the expected values issues--though abortion and the traditional family weren't ignored--but on genocide, global AIDS and human trafficking. The most common request I received was, "We need to meet with the president on Sudan"--not on gay marriage. This reflects a head-snapping generational change among evangelicals, from leaders like Falwell and Robertson to Rick Warren, focused on fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa, and Gary Haugen, confronting rape and sexual slavery in the developing world. Since leaving government, I've asked young evangelicals on campuses from Wheaton to Harvard who they view as their model of Christian activism. Their answer is nearly unanimous: Bono.

Many evangelicals have begun elbowing against the narrowness of the religious right, becoming more globally focused and more likely to consider themselves "pro-life and pro-poor." Depending on your perspective, this may be creeping liberalism or political maturity. But where did it come from?

First, in reacting against the harsh tone of some on the religious right, many have been led back to the text of the Bible itself. Throughout the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and the teachings of the New Testament, social arrangements are judged by their effect on the weak. And while this perspective isn't utopian--perfection being unavailable in this fallen world--it can be radical. In our country, that faith-based radicalism helped drive the abolition movement, the cause of women's suffrage, the reform of prisons and mental hospitals. It was not long ago that the three-time Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan--who championed legalizing strikes, giving the vote to women and a progressive income tax--was also a fervent, Bible-quoting evangelical. A politically progressive evangelicalism is not an innovation, it is a revival; not a fresh track in the snow, but a rutted path of American history.

Second, this new evangelicalism is, in part, a positive legacy of the religious right. One of the important innovations of religious conservatism in the 1980s was the discovery of common cause between evangelicals and Roman Catholics after generations of mutual bitterness. Early pro-life events featured busloads from Liberty University marching beside Knights of Columbus carrying statues of the Virgin Mary, in the best democratic tradition of taming durable differences. Over two decades, evangelicals came to view John Paul II as almost one of their own, admiring his balance of firm orthodoxy and global concern for the poor and oppressed. And for many, including me, Roman Catholic social thought provided a more sophisticated model of social engagement than a fractured Protestantism had produced. Evangelicals began to talk of subsidiarity (the imperative to respect and strengthen value-shaping institutions of community and family) and solidarity with the poor, and the pursuit of the common good, in ways that were not allergic to government.

Third, the global focus of the new evangelicalism also reflects a major historical change: the southward shift of Christianity. The center of gravity of the Christian world is now arguably in central Africa, with more than a third of a billion Christians on that continent. Many American congregations have developed church-to-church ties with this rising African Christianity. Some American Episcopal churches, fed up with North American theological liberalism, have formally associated with more-orthodox developing-world bishops. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow estimates that 1.6 million American Christians took short-term foreign mission trips last year, creating a generation of church leaders with a direct, often life-changing experience of the needs, vitality and heroism of the developing world. …