A New Social Gospel

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.

While many evangelicals are impatient with the priorities of the religious right, it would be a mistake to argue that they are disillusioned by politics itself. The new evangelicals are not calling for cultural retreat, but for broader engagement. Politics, at its best, has the goal of serving your neighbor. Those who, in their own personal disillusionment, recommend a "fast" from politics are really recommending a "fast" from the pursuit of justice--which is not an option for Biblical Christians.

Yet this change in evangelicalism does have political consequences, which both parties have an interest in taking seriously.

Republicans will find it increasingly difficult to appeal to the new evangelicals with tired symbols like school prayer or the posting of the Ten Commandments. And candidates like Senator McCain will need to be more creative in their outreach than an uncomfortable speech at the Liberty University commencement. These activists will expect serious proposals on an expanded moral agenda--as President Bush has delivered on human trafficking and global AIDS. And they will not respond to a crude libertarianism that elevates the severe pleasures of cutting food stamps or foreign aid over the pursuit of the common good.

These changes in evangelicalism should be an opportunity for Democrats. But seizing it would require a philosophic shift. Modern liberalism has defined the belief in truth as the enemy of tolerance because absolute claims of right and wrong lead to coercion. And religious claims, in this view, are the most intolerant of all, and should be radically privatized so no one's morality gets "imposed" on another. It is difficult for liberals and Democrats to appeal to religious people while declaring their deepest motivations a threat to the republic. And it is difficult to imagine the history of the republic if this narrow view had prevailed. How does moral skepticism and privatized religion motivate decades of struggle against slavery, or lead men and women, step by step, toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma? If there is really no truth, why believe in, or sacrifice for, the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence?

This problem will not be solved with better, less-awkward religious language. Democrats will need to demonstrate a genuine openness to religious ideals and motivations. They could start by reopening their party to people with pro-life convictions--people who see the protection of the weakest members of the human family as an important measure of social justice. And, heading into 2008, Democratic candidates will have the chance to appeal to the new evangelicals with bold policies. I can imagine a Democratic candidate, perhaps a senator from Illinois, speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals: "So today I announce my proposal for a 10-year effort to eliminate malaria on the African continent, saving a million lives a year, mainly children under 5. It is so difficult in politics to know what God would curse or bless--and I suspect our views on God's judgments would sometimes disagree. But I think we all know that saving children from malaria is a goal that God will bless." Somebody would say, "Amen."

So far, the new evangelicalism is more a tendency than a movement. To have a broad cultural influence, it will need to rally around a new faith-based agenda--a series of great moral objectives that would benefit America and the world, and make religious people proud of their political involvement. Many issues might fit in that category, but some of the main ones are likely to be:

Global health. This issue presents America with a moral test: we see the deadly prevalence of AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and diabetes in the developing world, and we also possess the technologies and resources to prevent and treat those diseases. Our capabilities create responsibilities. Our indifference creates casualties. Confronting disease abroad is generally not ideologically controversial; it is a matter of political will. And evangelicals could provide something that American politics has lacked: a broad and vocal constituency for increased and effective foreign aid.

Race and poverty. Hurricane Katrina revealed a kind of persistent poverty that leaves many Americans with no connection to, or stake in, the American economy. It also revealed a political class in Washington, in both parties, that seems to view this as an unfortunate fact of life, rather than a scandal that must eventually be addressed. A new faith-based agenda should include policies that provide help for overwhelmed pastors and neighborhood activists who are salvaging discarded lives; encourage mentors for abandoned children, and promote wealth-building to overcome the economic legacy of slavery and segregation.

The frontiers of medicine. Debates on the value and protection of developing life are not going away. They are likely to intensify as medical advances turn parts of growing humans into valuable spare parts for other lives, and as greater genetic control yields a power to create more-perfect humans. America will need serious moral reflection to draw distinctions between the tremendous promise of science and the diseased dreams of eugenics. Evangelicals have a moral mandate to speak for the weak and vulnerable in these matters.

When it speaks, a new evangelicalism should be distinctive for its tone as well. The goal is not only to stand for Christianity's moral teachings but to emulate the manner of its Founder, who showed that kindness is not weakness, and had more tenderness for moral outcasts than for moral hypocrites.

Often the media miss or ignore this kind of new evangelical leader. There is a tendency to elevate the most irresponsible and strident religious figures, mostly because it makes for better cable TV. This practice reflects a stereotype held by many media decision makers, who view every orthodox Christian as a fundamentalist, and every fundamentalist as a theocrat. The stereotype is unfair and uninteresting. Evangelicalism is both more diverse and more idealistic than its critics understand. And that should be welcome news for Americans, religious and secular alike.