Purpose Driven Right

Article excerpt

A new generation of evangelicals looks beyond abortion and homosexuality.

BEFORE THE LAST presidential election, members of Woodland Hills Church bombarded their pastor with requests to distribute pro-Republican voter guides and introduce conservative politicians from the pulpit. Instead, the Rev. Gregory Boyd launched into a series of six sermons titled "The Cross and the Sword" denouncing the "nationalistic and political idolatry" of the Christian Right. The fervor shocked the suburban St. Paul megachurch's conservative congregation and eventually landed Boyd on the front page of the New York Times.

There has been no shortage of books denouncing evangelicals' increasingly prominent role in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Andrew Sullivan laments the rise of "Christianists"-a term some see as an attempt to compare religious conservatism to radical Islam-while former First Things editor Damon Linker has warned that "theocons" have "secular America under siege." But some of the recent criticism has come from evangelicals themselves.

In May, Boyd published The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church. He was followed by Randall Balmer, a Barnard College religion professor and self-described "passionate evangelical," who wrote Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. While secularist critics of the Christian Right fear their religious rhetoric portends theocracy, these evangelicals worry their co-religionists are compromising their faith by connecting the Gospel too closely to a secular political agenda.

Among theologically conservative Protestants, Boyd and Balmer remain political outliers. In 2004, 78 percent of white evangelicals voted to re-elect President Bush. At 72 percent, they were only slightly less supportive of Republican congressional candidates. While the GOP's fortunes have declined nationally, a May Pew Research Forum poll found that the number of evangelicals identifying as Republicans has actually increased during 2006.

Indeed, Boyd's pre-election attack on the Religious Right was poorly received by some members of his own congregation. One-fifth of Woodland Hills' 5,000 members left the church. A fundraising drive conducted at the time of the controversial sermons fell $3 million short of it goal, forcing staff reductions.

While most evangelicals aren't ready to abandon the Republican Party, many are open to a conversation about what Christian political involvement should look like. A changing of the guard is apparent. The most prominent leaders of the Religious Right-Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson-are senior citizens. With the exception of Dobson, their influence appears to be on the wane even among fellow Christian conservatives. Ralph Reed, once considered a successor, suffered a setback when his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal cost him his party's nomination for lieutenant governor in Georgia.

A new generation of evangelical leadership-Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, and Joel Osteen-is less overtly political and interested in issues not usually associated with conservative activism. While still opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, these ministers are far more likely to speak out about AIDS, poverty, and environmental protection.

Warren has set up three foundations to distribute 90 percent of the proceeds from his bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. The focus areas include alleviating poverty and treating AIDS victims in developing countries; none of the foundations are involved in lobbying for confirming the president's judicial nominees or promoting conservative political causes. In June, he brought together such prominent evangelicals as Billy Graham to participate in an open letter to Bush about poverty. Warren wrote, "I deeply believe that if we as evangelicals remain silent and do not speak up in defense of the poor, we lose our credibility and our right to witness about God's love for the world. …

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