Evangelical Christianity moving in the direction of compassion

December 25, 2006|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- For a few decades now, a narrow view of Christianity has dominated the public square; it's a pinched theology consumed with sexuality but also taking a variety of conservative positions - such as opposition to tax increases - that don't seem to have much to do with the Gospel. That hard-shell Christianity has as its standard-bearers such men as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the Rev. Pat Robertson.

The good news of this Christmas season is this: Not only have those theocrats seen their political influence erode with Republican losses in the midterm elections, but their brand of Christianity is also losing its monopoly on the public square. Moderate-to-liberal Christians, such as Sen. Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, have given voice to a competing theology, as have more conservative Christians such as evangelist Rick Warren. Indeed, some of the most energetic opponents of the Falwell-Dobson axis are other conservative believers who want to reclaim the traditional emphasis on helping the needy.

There was always a cognitive dissonance in the ideology of groups such as the Christian Coalition of America. The political network of conservative Christianity grew into a formidable force after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade in 1973, a decision that still angers social conservatives.

But the same groups who so forcefully denounce abortion have cheapened their claims to morality by actively opposing policies that might help poor, single mothers support their children. As much as they proclaim themselves "pro-family," those groups have shown little enthusiasm for welfare, Head Start, the earned income tax credit or other programs to help struggling families. They love children fiercely right up until the time they leave the womb.

That dissonance has finally strained the evangelical movement, which is starting to splinter as some high-profile preachers seek to broaden their political agenda to include issues such as global warming, the AIDS epidemic and poverty. Mr. Warren - pastor of a California mega-church and author of The Purpose-Driven Life - continues to oppose embryonic stem cell research and abortion. But he has also criticized the use of torture on terrorism suspects.

The Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of a mega-church near Orlando, Fla., says evangelicals must embrace an agenda that more closely hews to New Testament values of social justice and compassion.

Admittedly, not all conservative Christians are prepared to support causes that sound so suspiciously, well, liberal. In fact, Mr. Hunter resigned as the incoming president of the Christian Coalition in November, when he realized that its board was not comfortable with his views. Four state chapters - Ohio, Alabama, Iowa and Georgia - had already abandoned the Christian Coalition of America for fear that an agenda emphasizing compassion might carry the day.

"We decided to stick with the original mission," said Sadie Fields, formerly head of the Georgia Christian Coalition, now chairman of the newly formed Georgia Christian Alliance. She views that mission as "pro-life, pro-family" - phrases elastic enough to include not only opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion but also support for a harshly restrictive voter ID law pushed by Georgia Republicans.

"Elections are critical to the family - who is going to represent us in the Congress and the White House," Ms. Fields said, adding, "So we need to protect the integrity of the voting process." (As it happens, harsh voter ID laws also help to protect Republican majorities.)

There have long been evangelical Christians who disagreed with the fundamentalism - and the blatant political partisanship - of people such as Ms. Fields. But as long as Congress was dominated by Republicans allied with the rigid fundamentalists, those less-exclusionary evangelicals received little notice.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, editor in chief of Sojourners magazine, has spent much of his career fighting to ameliorate poverty and broaden social justice. His latest book, God's Politics, provides a harsh critique of conservative policies that comfort the comfortable while punishing the poor. "Let's tell it as the prophets might have: The decision to drop tax credits for America's poorest families in favor of further tax cuts for the rich is morally offensive," he wrote.

Amen.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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