On March 9, evangelical Christians will converge in Washington, D.C., for the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which represents various Protestant churches and denominations across the country with a combined membership of between 30 million and 40 million people. Anybody concerned about the increasing influence of religion on U.S. public policy ought to be paying close attention.
A key event during the convention will be the release of a 12-page statement of principles meant to serve as guidelines for unprecedented political engagement by U.S. evangelicals. Called For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility, this manifestofor a Bible-based public policy calls on evangelical Christians to recognize that it is their religious obligation to advocate for government policies that support their religious beliefs.
The preamble to the document quickly makes clear that the group is not looking to influence policy on the margins but to become a major voice in the political process: "Evangelical Christians in America face a historic opportunity. We make up fully one quarter of all voters in the most powerful nation in history. Never before has God given American evangelicals such an awesome opportunity to shape public policy in ways that could contribute to the well-being of the entire world. Disengagement is not an option. We must seek God's face for biblical faithfulness and abundant wisdom to rise to this unique challenge."
It is important to note that the March NAE meeting will not mark the launch of some bomb-throwing religious-right pressure group. The NAE has had a presence in Washington since the 1940s, and has long trod the middle road between mainline Protestantism and the separatist anti-intellectualism of fundamentalist Christianity.
Nor is this a short-term play for publicity meant to push a particular issue. The policy statement is broad in scope, has been years in the making, and has been vetted by hundreds of evangelical ministers from across the country.
What the March meeting will indicate is that American evangelicals have been thinking, planning, and, indeed, praying for a long time about how best to actively engage in the political process. What they have decided is that they are required, not just as citizens but also as Christians, to advocate for political change and, above all, to mobilize the more than half of self-identified evangelicals in the country who currently don't vote.
That's right: Half of the evangelicals in the United States -- the group largely credited with delivering a second term to President Bush -- don't vote in most elections. Consider their power as a truly mobilized voting bloc.
(Evangelicals, it should be noted, are not a doctrinally monolithic bunch but are made up of many different traditions. However, all evangelicals share some common principles, including the belief in the importance of proselytizing, that personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as savior is essential to salvation, and that the Bible provides definitive rules and guidance for how to live.)
The gut reaction from the political left to increased evangelical engagement will likely be an immediate urge to retreat to the ramparts of the First Amendment's church-state divide and raise the drawbridge. This would be a major mistake for two reasons.
First of all, waiting for a clear-cut case of government "establishment of religion" cedes a lot of ground to opponents of gay marriage and stem-cell research, as well as advocates of a total ban on abortion, all of whom can achieve the majority of their goals without crossing the church-state line if they are left unchallenged. They need to be met on the field and forced to defend their positions in secular terms for what is still a secular polity. Arguments that eventually fall back on the "because the Bible says so" defense are not going to sit well with large segments of the population, including many who consider themselves observant Christians.
Second, liberals who take the time to hear what many politically active evangelicals have to say could well find policy areas in which they share broad areas of agreement on ultimate goals, even if evangelicals' biblical justifications make them uncomfortable.
In raw political terms, Republicans have for too long been allowed to cherry-pick issues from the list of evangelicals' concerns, earning political support by staking out strong positions on issues like abortion and gay marriage while ignoring many evangelical' significant concerns about the environment, care for the poor, global human rights, and just-war theory.
For the Health of the Nation will be released simultaneously with Toward an Evangelical Public Policy, a book of 16 essays on the proper evangelical role in government written by a mix of scholars, clergy, and political activists.
Where the 12-page For the Health of the Nation in the character of many broad political documents, is replete with anodyne statements of general principle, the essays in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy are detailed and thoughtful explications of evangelical thinking on a broad range of public-policy issues.
To be sure, neither document leaves any doubt about evangelicals' opposition to high-profile issues like gay marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research. But what the essays in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy also suggest is that there are many evangelicals in the country who have looked at conservative Republicans' co-opting of Christianity in recent years and found that they didn't particularly like what they saw. Anyone uncomfortable with biblical justifications for public policy will find a lot to squirm over in the book -- but Democrats will also find many ideas that they can wholeheartedly agree with on a policy level.
Writing on the ethical theory of just war, Glen H. Stassen of the Fuller Theological Seminary makes a number of points that can be clearly interpreted as questioning the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. Noting that "government truthfulness" about the reasons for war is essential to any just exercise of a democracy's military force, he writes, "Deceitful authority is unjust authority, especially when the deceit is in the service of getting people killed."
Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action and one of the volume's editors, writes about social justice in terms that would sound familiar to any moderate Democrat: "When indirect approaches are not effective in restraining economic injustice or in providing care for those who cannot care for themselves, the state must act directly to demand patterns of justice and provide vital services..."
Writing on the historical lack of a strong environmental ethic among evangelicals, R. Scott Rodin, a consultant for Christian nonprofits and former president of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary writes: "Given our theological heritage and commitments, it is surprising that evangelicals have not been more at the forefront in the cause of saving and preserving our environment... As evangelical leaders, we need to step up to our responsibilities to be leaders in the fight for clean air and water, to stop the burning of rain forests, cruelty to animals, overuse of pesticides, and the countless other issues that result from our consumer-oriented lifestyles."
Democrats aren't likely to capture anything even approaching a majority of the evangelical vote in the near future, but given the electoral imbalance in the last election (in which white evangelicals voted 78 percent for Bush), the prospect of a beefed-up evangelical electorate should be alarming enough to get the party thinking about ways to peel off as large a segment of that bloc as possible.
The first step must be understanding who evangelicals are and what they think about public policy, and reading Toward an Evangelical Public Policy is a good place to start.
Rob Garver is a freelance journalist who lives in Springfield, Virginia, and is currently studying at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
By Rob Garver
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved