A group of evangelical and progressive leaders, led by the left-leaning think tank Third Way, are meeting this week in Washington to launch "Come Let Us Reason Together: A Fresh Look at Shared Cultural Values Between Progressives and Evangelicals," a new paper that calls for common ground on the toughest cultural issues of our day: abortion, gay and lesbian rights, treatment of the human embryo and the role of religion in the public square. The paper finds that among evangelicals in the U.S., one-fifth can be described as progressive and one-third as moderate, results similar to those of a 2006 survey by the PEW foundation that reported that while 46 percent of evangelicals are highly socially conservative, 36 percent are moderate and 18 percent are significantly less conservative on social issues. The full Third Way report can be found at www.third-way.com.
Third Way, a nonprofit group founded in 2005, does not have a high profile with the public, but it targets policy-makers—and in that arena it is beginning to make some waves. And there's reason to believe the group may be on to something. In a national survey conducted earlier this month, Third Way found that three-quarters of those surveyed said they wish elected leaders would look for a middle ground on abortion.
The authors of the 40-page report—a cross-section of evangelical leaders and Third Way staffers and consultants—acknowledge the difficulties involved in bridging the considerable political and cultural divide on such thorny issues. (Indeed, a leader of the National Right to Life Committee has called the Third Way approach "a political ploy to silence the debate.") But consensus is possible, the authors argue—through better communication and a greater willingness to focus on common goals. Those goals include reducing the need for abortions through better access to birth control, and also by providing more financial support for would-be mothers who might otherwise abort due to financial concerns. One of the evangelical leaders who has endorsed the idea of working together is the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, pastor of the Orlando-based Northland Church, who also serves on the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. The former president of the Christian Coalition, who now preaches to a congregation of 12,000, talked with NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant on the prospects of bridging the cultural divide as the 2008 election looms. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You are endorsing a paper that talks about bridging a gap between evangelicals and progressives. Does that mean that you are a progressive evangelical yourself?
Rev. Joel C. Hunter: It depends on the issue. I'm pro-life, I'm against the redefinition of marriage, and I'm against pornography and gambling. On issues related to compassion I'm more progressive—such as doing all we can for the environment, fighting poverty and the AIDS epidemic.
Do you typically vote for pro-life, Republican candidates?
Why are you endorsing the efforts of progressive groups, like Third Way, which are pro-choice, if you are a conservative on the pro-life question?
Because there is emerging, out of the evangelical movement, a desire to make progress, even if we don't get it 100 percent our way. I think you are seeing that there is now more of an openness to work toward real, practical solutions that will at least reduce the number of abortions in the country. Bills like [the Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act, introduced by a pro-life congressman and pro-choice congresswoman, with input from Third Way] support women who decide to carry their baby to term. For a pro-life person like myself that means one more baby gets to live. For the pro-choice movement that means one more woman gets supported in her decision. We're both reaching our goals without compromising our ideals. What the Third Way does, and what attracts me as an evangelical, is that they are the kind of think tank that can do the research and work on legislative goals to offer solutions evangelicals can get on board with. In recent years all you've been hearing from both sides is "This is where we stand." And so nothing gets done.
We've been hearing a lot lately about splits within the evangelical community and a greater openness to listen to Democrats talking about the need to "reduce" abortions, even though they do not want to overturn Roe v. Wade. Does this flexibility to hear all sides of the argument mean there's an opening for someone like you to consider a pro-choice presidential candidate?
I don't think you'll see masses of evangelicals moving toward any pro-choice candidates, but in tight elections you don't need masses. It all depends on who the candidates are. If it's Giuliani vs. Clinton, then a significant number of evangelical Republicans may vote Democratic, since their central issue is no longer supported by the Republican candidate. But I do see a general opening—not necessarily a shift—to a broader consideration of more issues than the one or two knee-jerk issues we've been fighting over these past few decades.
Since the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the ban on partial-birth abortion, what's next for the pro-life movement?
That ruling was very encouraging. It was a horrendous procedure, and now we're wondering what are the next steps we can take. If partial-birth abortion is seen as the killing of a valuable life, then what about six months earlier in the pregnancy? I think we're starting to make progress in the definition of what is a viable life and making sure that it's not ended.
How do you view the Democrats' reaching out to evangelicals on values?
This is very smart. We're a religious nation, and to ignore that is not a good strategy. How much of this is political strategy and how much of this is a candidate's chance to talk about what is real in their lives is something we need to evaluate, of course. But looking at Clinton, Obama and Edwards talk about their faith is helping me see them as people, as whole people. Voters want to trust the candidates, and for them to open up on this subject helps that.
You say that you are willing to work with progressive and pro-choice groups to help reduce abortions, but what about issues like gay marriage? Is there really common ground there?
Every person in the eyes of God is worthy of respect. We may come out differently on the gay marriage issue, but it's important for us to stress that gays and lesbians are deserving of respect as human beings just like anyone else. The approach we're working on here is really to defuse the automatic polarization of the issue.
You're endorsing this paper, which talks about common ground between evangelicals and progressives, but what about the nuts-and-bolts question of whether you could approve of gay marriage? Or do you want them to give up the fight for it? I don't see the common ground here.
There is no compromise here on how we feel about gay marriage. I am not endorsing it or compromising on it. The question on this issue—on all the social issues—is really about how much conversation we can have, about how much we can finally just talk with each other, without either side giving up their basic moral tenets.