Over the past two decades, many American evangelicals have overcome their traditional resistance to political engagement to become involved in the public debate of numerous domestic and foreign-policy issues. The nature and success of this activity was the subject of a Center conference entitlted “Evangelicals in Political and Civic Life: An Inventory,” held June 17-19, 2001, at the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. In the course of five session, prominent evangelicals and other scholars discussed this community’s political influence, social and charitable work, foreign-policy interests, and attitudes about race, education, homosexuality, abortion, and bioethics.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, according to John Green of the University of Akron, evangelicals focused on “saving soulds rather than saving society” and avoided the public square. But his survey data reveal that in the last twenty years, particularly among the elites, political and social activism has increased significantly. Mark Rozell of the Catholic University of America went on to assess evangelicals’ evolution and effectiveness in the political arena. Despite widespread speculation that its power is waning, the Christian Right demonstrated considerable strength in the 2000 election, Rozell argued. Christian conservatives were especially instrumental in overcoming McCain’s challenge and delivering the nomination to Bush. Though less visible in the general election and less dominated by a single organization such as the Christian Coalition, they now exert considerable influence within the Republican Party. The Christian Right must now decide whether the price for achieving this significant but necessarily limited and pragmatic role is too high–namely, the sacrifice of its more prophetic, critical voice.
The second session explored how evangelical thinkers and activists have affected public sentiment and policies regarding welfare and care of the poor. Kurt Schaefer of Calvin College reviewed the contributions and contending arguments of four “flagship books,” three broadly visionary–The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin Olasky, Just Generosity by Ronald Sider, and Godly Materialism by John Schneider–plus the more pragmatic Restorers of Hope by Amy Sherman. Informed by the evangelical tradition, “these serious, substantial works have a wider secular appeal,” Schaefer noted, and have altered the debate in the larger society about the role of the state in the alleviation of poverty. Speaking for herself, Amy Sherman of the Hudson Institute next described and defended the Bush Administration’s new charitable-choise proposals, which she helped to conceive and design. The guidelines are not ideal, Sherman conceded, and faith-based organizations are right to limit their dependence on public funds to protect the integrity of their missions. Many worthwhile programs are likely to benefit from this new access to government support, however, and she urged the evangelical community to recognize the justice and wisdom of allowing reoigious and secular communities to compete for aid on a more equal footing.
Moving on to the quagmire of race, Michael Emerson of Rice University examined evangelical attitudes toward what he termed our profoundly “racialized society, which allocates income, wealth, health, status, and pyschological well-being unequally along racial lines.” While most white evangelicals genuinely desire racial harmony and several have recently devoted considerable energy to achieving that goal, Emerson said, their good intentions are undermined by their theologically rooted emphasis on individual accountability. White evangelicals have failed to reduce the racial divide because, operating mostly in a crucible of racial isolation, they fail to appreciate the social barriers that African-Americans face. Rhys Williams of Southern
Illinois University (now with the University of Cincinnati), offered a more upbeat assessment of some reconciliation efforts by describing a number of successful multiethnic evangelical ministries among at-risk urban youth. Young people are less reluctant to cross racial divisions than their parents, he noted, and some white evaneglical churches in Chicago have been able to attract and keep Latino and African-American members by establishing semi-autonomous youth groups for them. These supportive “alternative communities to life on the street” provide the young congregants with a safe space in which to foster a cultura of personal responsibility and pro-social behavior.
David Sikkink of the Unviersity of Notre Dame address another “sticky issue” for evangelical civic engagement–public education. When evangelicals first attempted to oppose fundamentalist separatism in the 1940s, they committed themselves to a strategy of “engaged orthodoxy” to exert a positive influence in the schools. As public schools have become more secular, however, evangelicals have found it harder to reamin true to this tradition. Their participant in public education is now threatened by the high time demands placed on them by their churches, the expansion of such educational alternatives as home schooling, and the perception that public schools are increasingly hostile to their values. In sum, Sikkink said, evangelicals are “both supportive and skeptical of public schools,” but their current embrace of more “private” forms of schooling may actually “facilitate forms of civic engagements beyond the school and church.”
The fourth session of the conference analyzed the evangelical response to the gay-rights movement and to “family modernization.” Over the past three decades, observed Jeffery Satinover of Yale University, a brilliant propaganda campaign has convinced the American public–in contradiction to a mountain of evidence–that homosexuality is innate, irreversible, “normal,” and not condemned in the Bible. The battle for public opinion is lost, Satinover said, but evangelicals still can and should play a more effective role in addressing the challenge of homosexuality. To thrive, human socieities must place boundaries around sexuality. He advised traditionalists to abandon cruel condemnation, increase support for ex-gay ministries, learn from the humane example set by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and work harder to stabilize family life.
How, in fact, is the evangelical family holding up in the face of feminism, the sexual revolution, rampant individualism, and other cultural trends? While conservative Protestants ahve been able “to resist some aspects of family modernization,” reported Bradford Wilcox of Princeton University, they have engaged or accommodated others. They have appropriately adapted the broader culture’s “therapeutic-pragmatic modes of thinking” to their ownb traditional parenting ethic, which gives equal weight to love and discipline. And women’s increased participation in the labor force has eroded the strict gender roles characteristic of evangelical family life. But Wilcox finds another development more insidious: evangelicals’ emabrace of unrealistically high expectations regarding marital fulfillment perversely contributes, he said, to their rising divorce rate. Turning to a different threat–the same-sex “marriage”
movement–David Orgon Coolidge, director of the Marriage Law project of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, dissected a few recent legal-political battles waged to alter the course of the cultural tide, or at least to stem its strength. He described and defended practical strategies used by evangelical groups and others in Alaska, California, and Nebraska to reaffirm the besieged institution of marriage.
The final session focused first on evoliving evangelical attitudes toward abortion. Drawing primarily on data available in the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey since 1972, Clyde Wilcox of Georgetown University maintained that public opinion on this issue does not mirror the sharp divisions of the political elites. Most Americans, including evangeliacls, try to balance the competing values of fetal life and women’s autonomy, and take circumstances into account. On the whole, however, evangelicals are “distinctively less supportive of abortion than mainline Protestants and slightly less supportive than Catholics.”