Evangelicals Backing Away from Political Affiliation In a tense election season, candidates from both parties are courting the evangelical vote. But, within the evangelical community, there are differences of approach regarding issues of same-sex marriage, the environment and abortion. Two evangelical leaders — the Rev. Harry Jackson and the Rev. Jim Wallis — discuss faith and politics.
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Evangelicals Backing Away from Political Affiliation

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Evangelicals Backing Away from Political Affiliation

Evangelicals Backing Away from Political Affiliation

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: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post Religious Right America." Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

: Hi, Michel.

: Thank you.

: Bishop Jackson, if I could start with you, you wrote this book with Tony Perkins, what were you trying to do with this book?

: Well, I wanted to give a game plan for the maturing of the movement. In '70 - sorry, in 2004, in the election, many people are aware that blacks joined with whites more than ever before to put Bush back into office. We did that not because of the war and those things, but we did it because we wanted to protect marriage. I felt, as I talked to evangelical leaders, that we needed to embrace the fact that the black church had felt disenfranchised from the movement because we never dealt with the issues of biblical justice and prejudice which was major. In fact, in the civil rights era, you well know that King had to respond from the Birmingham Jail to clergymen who didn't think he was doing the right thing. And in some ways, the segregation movement, the Christian school movement, became a segregationalist movement early on. So, there's been a rift that needed to be healed, and we needed to do it doctrinally. We had to say righteousness and justice. These issues of marriage and other things have got to come together. So, after about five years of my working behind the scenes, talking to all the players, we began to think that we needed to articulate a new game plan.

: I just want to point out that you are a Democrat, and Tony Perkins, your co-author, is a Republican. You're an African-American Democrat, he is a white Republican.

: Yes.

: And I pointed out though in the book that you say, that you ask forgiveness for falling into the trap of aligning with one party too closely. Do you mean this as a - I guess what I'm wondering is do you all really agree on this point or is this something that you are sort of challenging members of the faith community to contemplate?

: No, we agree on it. Let me tell a quick story if I might. I was in a meeting, 2006, right before the Marriage Amendment vote, and the fact that it was actually not brought forth on the floor of the Senate. Karl Rove is talking to all the major players of what some call the evangelical right. He then begins to deny that we had that much influence on making the 2004 election happen for Bush. After he spoke, I spoke up and said, sir, I'm a registered Democrat, I've been working with Republicans on national issues, and you make me feel like the Democrats make me feel about moral issues. They show up on the Sunday before the Tuesday, they want what they want when they want it. It's like we're in an adulterous relationship, and you never take me out to dinner or give me roses, all you do is come and knock at my door in the middle of the night. I am absolutely insulted at your attitude. Well, Rove got upset, and then one by one...

: I'm shocked he got upset, my goodness.

: Well, but everybody else in the room voiced this, and it was somewhat of the beginning, and I had been telling these guys that for a long time that in some ways, there had been an inability to wield their power effectively because they were joined at the hip to these people. So, I think that this is a natural progression of a movement that's about 35 or 40 years old now that has got to be moving forward and embracing the fact that Hispanics and blacks are a great part of the evangelical movement today.

: Reverend Wallis, how did you come to believe that the evangelical community needed to revisit how it expresses itself politically?

: You know, Michel, politically for years people have been saying you're a progressive evangelical, isn't that a misnomer? Well, the misnomer's becoming a movement. Harry and I are evangelicals, the religious right in my view was a political movement. It was started by Republican operatives who made alliances to win elections for Republicans. Ralph Reed, on Jerry Falwell's - on the night of his death, said he credited Falwell and Robertson with arranging the marriage between evangelicals and the Republican Party. And I think that Harry's right, it was more of an adulterous affair. It was a bad marriage. It was a mistaken affair because of the seduction of power. We're both evangelicals. I think the religious right was a political movement and many evangelicals are leaving the religious right because their agenda is broader and deeper. Poverty is now a mainstream evangelical agenda. Harry and I are pushing that hard. The environment is a mainstream evangelical agenda. There's a new generation, there's a new face, Harry's right. Black and Hispanic evangelicals are changing the face of evangelicalism, and for a long time, the media said evangelicals, you mean white evangelicals. It's a new generation, a new face, and a new agenda.

: I want to speak on that because often when we're talking about this critique, the issue of sort of the media comes up and it raises the question of whether the issue is one of presentation, you just feel like you've been misunderstood, or it's an issue of really whether you're walking the walk? I mean, people on the other side of the aisle, if you will, and I would also say members of, if you want to call it the religious left, say why wasn't poverty always part of the agenda? Why wasn't racial reconciliation always part of the agenda? So, I guess the question is, are you misunderstood or is it that you haven't been doing that agenda?

: Well, for a number of us, poverty and racism have been on the agenda since the beginning. When we started 35 years ago, that was the agenda. So that hasn't changed, but there's always been a lot of people talking about those 2,000 verses in the Bible about poverty. But the media for decades did focus more on a few voices on the religious right than more progressive voices. So there has been a selective coverage over the years. But I think the agenda is changing, and blacks and Hispanics are more and more influential and vocal and in a leadership role in the evangelical community. So there is a new generation coming of age too. There's a whole new generation of young evangelicals who think Jesus might have cared more about the 30,000 children who died again today of poverty and disease than he would about gay marriage amendments in Ohio. And that's a new agenda for them.

: Do you think that - do each of you think that there's a political moral center in this country and if so, what is it? I ask because the polls show we have profound divisions over some of these questions, which for some people are fundamental questions.

: Well, I use the term in the book moral center. That's what I think the country's hungry for, a moral - don't go left, don't go right, go deeper.

: But what is it? Given that we - go ahead Bishop.

: Well, let me jump in. Our book "Personal Faith, Public Policy" says what we feel, Tony and I, and that is you got to go back to personal faith. The anchoring of the scripture is why - the absence of that is why I think you have so much divergence out there. I think if you don't go back to the scriptures as a Christian to inform yourself,what you believe, then it's very, very difficult to make a logical, progressive step to say, these options are non-biblical or whatever. And I think, unfortunately, many have gone to their political aspirations or political orientations first, and then try to grapple with their Christianity second. In other words, they're Christian Democrats or they're Christian Republicans, versus being Christians. I'd like to consider myself a "Christocrat."

So, I think that Jim is right in this regard that there's a reawakening, but I think the religious right, again, rallied because of fear more than anything else. That it was not as organized as most people think. I disagree with Jim on this one point, that it was a religious movement - sorry, political movement first. I think people like Ralph Reed, if I can say this respectfully of him, prostituted and merchandised what was intended to be a spiritual movement. I think Jerry Falwell, who I knew and spoke with just last year a few weeks before he passed away, it was interesting. You know, I was ministering with him. I think he believed it was a spiritual movement, but I think that they didn't get it right in terms of the out-working of how you bring faith to politics.

: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. And I'm speaking with two evangelical leaders about new directions for evangelicals in politics. I still have to press this point about whether there's a political moral center if you will, given that a number of Christian denominations are themselves torn over questions like abortion and sanctioning of same-sex relationships. There's a schism in the Episcopal Church on this point, the church - you know, the United Methodist church on this point. So given that even in the Christian community there is disagreement about these things, can you really say there's a moral center? Political moral center?

: Yeah, I think you can. I talk in the "Great Awakening" about a consistent ethic of life. The young evangelicals who are talking about poverty and the environment care still about the sanctity of life, but they want to include Darfur in that. They want to include those 30,000 kids who died today. I've often said if I'm an unborn child and I want the support of the far Republican right, I should stay unborn as long as possible. Because once I'm born, I'm off the radar screen, no health care, no child care, so - Joel Hunter is a mega-church pastor, and he says I want to see a womb-to-tomb ethic here. I want to defend vulnerable children as well. So, I think there's a deeper take on that now. And in fact, I think a lot of us want to see some results. So there's now legislation, abortion reduction legislation in the Congress. You've got pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Democrats, Catholics both, Ryan and DeLauro both saying let's really dramatically reduce the abortion rate.

: Well, let's talk about that kind of what you call womb-to-tomb issue on the sanctity of life. Bishop, let's talk about health care, for example, which is an issue that you address in your book. I'm going to posit a theory that perhaps some people have abortions because they think that it is personal responsibility, because they don't believe if they have a child who is perhaps severely disabled that they will be able to care properly for that child, and then they look at the religious right and say where is your sense of - why are you not a voice on that issue?

: Yeah, we address this life issue here. What we do is that we have seven values in this book that we deal with, and they are value of life, immigration, poverty, injustice, racial reconciliation, religious liberties, rebuilding the family, the environment, and global warming. And we say to people that life trumps it all, but I agree with Jim that we need to protect life, but you can't just say keep that baby, and then not help the person after they decide to keep it. The church has a responsibility. So, what hasn't happened - and our book is a little bit different than Jim's. His is great, but I think that we take up more policy prescriptions. We do a lot of scripture quoting and anybody can read it. You don't even have to be born again to read it. But it gives you an analysis of here's what the Bible says, it looks at options, and then it gives practical steps for the church. It's written for the church.

: Well, give me an example of how you would revive - revisit spiritually and politically the conversation around immigration.

: Well, I would say about immigration is this, we are supposed to be open to the strangers. My whole paradigm is righteousness and justice. In other words, personal holiness, personal responsibility, and social justice that should for the Christian reflect the glory of God in the earth. Jim has been saying that many young Christians believe that reaching out to the poor reflects the compassion of Jesus. So, our responsibility is to do both, not just to keep the rules, we keep the rules in-house, but the people outside of our little faith community see the character of Jesus based on this thing called justice. So, what we say in this book is you've got to deal with both sides of this thing. You've got to deal with employers, and you've got to deal with people. I call immigration the new slavery, and I heard on Tavis Smiley's show the other day if I can say that, Jim Wallis calls poverty the new slavery, but the reason I call it the new slavery is that people get trapped in a series of circumstances where you've got to address both moral issues. The moral issues of the employer, the moral issues of the people who break the law, and then as a compassionate Christian society, we can't be reactive. There must be redemptive grace and mercy somewhere involved and that becomes confusing.

: Reverend Jim, if I could ask you this question though? For those who believe that abortion is the great moral tragedy of our time, like slavery in earlier centuries, how do you find common cause with those who, on the other side, believe that is a fundamental right of sort of personal freedom?

: Well, I think, you know, there are pro-life people who don't think pushing women into back alleys is pro-life. They want to do a change in the culture, in the values. The abortion reduction language is to support low-income women who are making difficult, very difficult, painful, often tragic choices. That's what they're doing. How do you make adoption reform more friendly to parents? I think the Democrats, for example, could take this position without criminalizing a desperate tragic choice. They could really say, let's dramatically reduce the abortion rate. And that could be a middle ground for both sides to kind of come to, to actually save unborn lives.

: I would agree with that.

: Very quickly, do you see this middle ground emerging? We talk so much - when we talk about politics now, we talk about polarization, that's really the word you hear more than anything else. Do you see the faith community arriving at perhaps a political consensus or middle ground that other groups, that other entities like politicians are not?

: You know, that's the interesting thing. As Harry and I talk and others of us talk around the country, when I travel - I've just been in 22 cities in six weeks for Great Awakening, and I've been on the road constantly. And out there, people are looking for a politics of solutions, and a politics of hope. In Washington, it's a politics of fear and a politics of blame. This is the most polarized city in the country. So, I think we can get to a moral center and find solutions, but left and right are not Biblical moral categories, political ones. And we can move beyond them.

: All right, let's hope we can continue this dialogue. I hope you'll both come back and see us at some point.

: Thank you, Michel.

: Thank you for having us, Michel.

: The Reverend Jim Wallis is founder of Sojourners, a global faith and justice network, and he's also author of "The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America." We're also joined by Bishop Harry Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church. He is author, co-author with Tony Perkins of "Personal Faith, Public Policy," and he was kind enough to join us here in Washington also. Gentleman, thank you both so much.

: Thank you Michel.

: Thank you.

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