The Evangelicals After Falwell

The Rev. Jerry Falwell's death highlighted both a power and a political shift within the Evangelical Christian community. Debbie Elliott gets a glimpse at some of the new evangelical leaders and their broader political agendas from Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In Lynchburg, Virginia today, thousands of worshippers packed the Reverend Jerry Falwell's church to mourn him and greet a horse-drawn hearse carrying his body. His funeral is Tuesday. Falwell's death this past week highlighted changes underway within America's evangelical communities. At the height of his power, Falwell mobilized millions into a political force. But that force has evolved.

I invited NPR's religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty to talk about the religious and political shifts. I asked her if there's any pastor now as powerful as Jerry Falwell once was.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, I think the pastor that comes closest to that is James Dobson. As you know, he has the radio talk show, "Focus on the Family," and he has millions and millions of listeners. He also has a spin-off political organization called Family Research Council. But, you know, I have to say that he's, kind of, the last example of one of these very powerful evangelical preachers with a narrow political agenda.

What we're seeing now is a whole new, kind of, generation of leaders that's emerging. They have a broader agenda. It's not just on abortion and same-sex marriage. They also care about things like AIDS, poverty, the environment. They have huge churches; they tend to be megapastors. And they don't - aren't as well known because they don't have these megaphones like large television stations, and so you may not hear about them as much.

ELLIOTT: Can you introduce us to a few of them?

HAGERTY: Sure. The one you probably know about is Rick Warren. He's the author of a mega best seller, "The Purpose Driven Life."

ELLIOTT: "The Purpose Driven Life." Right.

HAGERTY: He is conservative on the abortion and same-sex marriage issues, but he's very, very interested in things like AIDS in Africa. Last summer, he invited Barack Obama to come to his church for a conference on AIDS.

And he was criticized by the hard religious right for inviting a Democrat to his church for this conference. And so, really, kind of, what this showed was there is perhaps the beginnings of a fissure between the hard religious right and pastors like Rick Warren.

ELLIOTT: And who are some of the others?

HAGERTY: Well, another one whom you may not have heard of is Joel Hunter. He's a pastor of a megachurch down in Orlando, Florida called Northland Church. And I went down there a couple of weeks ago to talk to him. Hunter, last summer, was invited to head the Christian Coalition. That was Ralph Reed's organization, originally Pat Robertson's organization. And it's, kind of, floundered over the last few years.

They invited him to, kind of, reinvigorate the organization and expand its agenda. So he agreed. Hunter agreed to become the head of the Christian Coalition. But the engagement was called off last fall. And let's listen to him right now, speaking to his church and explaining what happened.

Dr. JOEL HUNTER (Senior Pastor, Northland Church): I believe that the agenda ought to be expanded into the full gospel. I made no secrets about this coming in. I told them right off the bat what I would want to do, how I would want to expand this agenda from simply the moral issues to the compassion issues of Christ, because I don't think the moral issues exhibit the fullness of the Gospel of Christ.

ELLIOTT: So it sounds to me that he thought the agenda of the Christian Coalition was too narrow?

HAGERTY: Absolutely. He thought it was just going to be on abortion and same-sex marriage. What Joel Hunter told me was that we've paid so much attention to life within the womb that we have forgotten about life outside of the womb.

ELLIOTT: Another religious voice that we've been hearing a lot from recently is Bishop T.D. Jakes. He's an African-American clergyman who has a huge following.

HAGERTY: Yes, he is very popular. He will draw 100,000 followers when he gives a rally. He is conservative on the sexual issues and liberal on the social justice issues. He likes the Bush administration. He likes Republicans, but he also is, kind of, up for grabs. And actually, that was something that he was talking about with NPR's Michele Norris this past week.

(Soundbite of past week's interview)

Bishop T.D. JAKES (Pastor, The Potter's House): I think religion in general is struggling with politics, not just African-Americans. Many, many times, we've allowed ourselves to be taken up under the control of this party or that party. And I think it's dangerous when you do that. I think that faith should transcend politics.

ELLIOTT: Now, that might be the theory, Barb. But we have seen faith be a big player in our last few presidential elections, certainly. How do we expect this to play out in the 2008 election?

HAGERTY: I was talking with John Green, who's at the Pew Center. What he told me is that 42 percent of white evangelicals, people who generally are aligned with the Republican Party - that they may be up for grabs. When you look at the candidates we have for the Republican nomination right now, none of them fits squarely into an evangelical mode...

ELLIOTT: Or none of the leading Republican candidates.

HAGERTY: Right. And so therefore, one of the two things that's probably going to happen with a lot of white evangelicals - either they will be frustrated with politics and they stay home or they go Democrat. And a lot will go Republican. I mean, I'm not saying that there's going to be wholesale shift, but Debbie, it doesn't take much of a wholesale shift. So this group of people could determine the next presidential election.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Thank you.

HAGERTY: You're welcome.

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