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The 'New Evangelicals' and the Near-Silent Roar

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Pluck the cotton from your ears and hear the cracks and booms: The Evangelical Right -- always a mile wide and a millimeter deep -- is fracturing. Witness the drama before South Carolina's January primary: Alleged "leaders" gathered in Texas and endorsed Rick Santorum; supposedly Bible-thumping Palmetto State Republicans replied by opting for a thrice-married and twice-divorced adulterer steeped in a history of ethics violations. So much for family values -- and so much for zombie-like cabals bending to their theocratic king-makers.

Yet television's "analysts" still deafen themselves to those cracks and booms, their ears stuffed with old clichés of voting blocs. They're missing what theologian Scott McKnight called "a new kind of Christian social conscience." I plead with them: Read Marcia Pally's outstanding book, "The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good," which documents the shifts McKnight describes. A telling statistic: In 2009, 35 percent of evangelicals identified themselves as Democrats and 34 percent as Republicans. The rest were independents. In other words, most evangelicals aren't even voting in this year's GOP primaries. Another: 64 percent of all white evangelicals don't believe church officials should endorse political candidates.

Pally, who teaches at New York and Fordham universities, pops myths in almost every chapter: Colonial Baptists argued for the separation of church and state because they feared adulterous, off-with-your-head monarchs editing their creeds and dictating their practices (no dominion theology here); evangelicals ministered in slums and populated the 19th century's progressive movement; Benjamin Warfield (1851-1921), the Princeton divine and bulwark of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, saw no threat in the theory of evolution. And evangelicals were actually late-arrivals to the pro-life fold. The Baptist Press endorsed the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. W.A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist president at the time, said this: "I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person ..."

I, along with the majority of contemporary evangelicals, disagree with Criswell; but I'd be intellectually dishonest if I didn't sympathize when pro-choice advocates claim we changed the goalposts.

The movement's two prongs -- social reform and personal piety -- were ripped apart when theological liberalism swept through mainline Protestantism early in the 20th century. Evangelicals largely retreated and plotted scenarios of looming "raptures." The Religious Right roared into flame in the 1970s, although some debate its spark: Conventional wisdom cites homosexuality and abortion; David Balmer says the effort gelled around government threats to the tax exempt status of racially segregated religious institutions. Whatever the original foundation, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson supplied juicy quotes while Ralph Reed organized Republicans waving the pro-life, pro-family flag.

But an "evangelical left" lingered and surveys showed that Falwell, Robertson and Dobson were never popular among the faithful. Many held their noses while voting Republican and resonated with Billy Graham: "It would disturb me if there was a wedding between religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it."

And why the guns' n' guts blustering? And why don't Republicans do anything about abortion? And since when did Jesus authorize "enhanced interrogation techniques?" And shouldn't we care for God's creation? And why isolate only two issues?

Where's the second prong?

It was always there, just beneath the surface, waiting for new evangelicals to dig it up and re-fasten it to personal devotion. Enter author and pastor Rick Warren, who practiced "reverse tithing" after re-discovering the Bible's 2000 references to the poor. Willow Creek Pastor Bill Hybels also discovered those verses and implemented social and environmental justice ministries. The Vineyard Christian Fellowship lists ministry to the poor as a key value: Tri Robinson's Vineyard church in Boise, Idaho, has launched several social and environmental ministries. Richard Cizik teamed up with several leaders and founded the "New Evangelicals for the Common Good," which advocates nuclear disarmament, torture elimination, inter-religious dialogue and environmental reform.

The earthquake rocked in 2005: Christianity Today, evangelicalism's influential magazine, cautioned against mingling the faith with partisan politics. The rumblings mounted: Forty-one percent of white evangelicals were happy with Democratic victories in the 2006 mid-terms; the National Association of Evangelicals warned against torture and criticized the Bush administration in 2007; several leaders signed the 2008 "Evangelical Manifesto," which cautioned against becoming "useful idiots" to manipulative politicians; and 32 percent of white evangelicals under 30 voted for President Obama, up five percent from the previous election.

Pally cites those facts and sprinkles her book with interviews. The "new evangelicals," who should actually be labeled "historic evangelicals" because they're refastening the second prong, are an issue-by-issue people. We can't peg them. There's a consistent refrain: Implement Christ's will. Party platforms are mere curiosities.

All the same, I can't help but ponder the possibilities: The GOP has been unmasked while Democrats remain tone deaf to the sensibilities of the world's most religious industrialized nation: Did the Obama Administration honestly think it would catch no flak from Catholic bishops over birth control? Perhaps these new evangelicals will unwittingly transform the GOP and resurrect the moderate-to-liberal Republican. Perhaps they'll bring back sanity.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, pluck the cotton, oh analysts. Hear the rumblings and take shelter from the earthquake. Your clichés are crumbling around your talking heads.

Around the Web

The New Evangelicals - NYTimes.com

The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Annals of Religion: The New Evangelicals : The New Yorker

What's New Is Old: 'America's New Evangelicals' | Christianity Today ...