Dallas Morning News, January 23, 2008: Evangelicals broadening issues to include poverty, education

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By BRENDAN McKENNA / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON Evangelical voters are almost always identified with two issues: abortion and marriage.

But some see a growing evangelical movement that advocates on a broader range of issues such as reducing poverty and improving public education, according to an online poll of Beliefnet readers released by the spiritual Web site.

At a Wednesday forum organized by Beliefnet, the Rev. Joel Hunter, a former president of the Christian Coalition, said that when it started, the evangelical political movement defined itself by what it was against.

“Any movement starts out as, you’re against something,” he said. “It’s kind of like the middle-school years. You define yourself by what you hate, what you’re not. And as you grow up, you have to start defining yourself by who you are, by what you want to build. That’s where we are right now.”

Panel moderator Jim Wallis, the founder and editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, said there’s a “new face today of what it means to be evangelical,” with activists translating the lessons of Scripture into addressing issues such as AIDS in Africa and global warming.

And he says that the people of faith who engage those issues could spark a “great awakening” of a movement for social justice issues.

“When politics fails to resolve or even address our greatest problems, what often happens is a social movement will rise up,” he said. “It has never happened that a social movement has made a difference without people of faith.”

He later added that President Lyndon Johnson “was not a civil rights leader until Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] made him one.”

Several speakers said they felt that the evangelical community should no longer be seen as reliably Republican voters or requiring litmus tests on certain issues.

“We are Christians on both sides now,” Mr. Wallis said. “We’re not deciding which side is God’s side of the aisle.”

Mr. Hunter added that in some ways Mike Huckabee, who has made some establishment Republicans nervous because of his populist message, is a sign of how the evangelical community is shifting.

“He is the first blush of this new evangelical,” Mr. Hunter said.

“But we’re starting to see a much broader, more populist type of concern out of what is linked with a very traditional conservative word.”

But not every evangelical group is sure about adding additional concerns to its political agenda.

“If you believe unborn children are children, the need for them to be protected and brought to life through birth is sacred,” said Tom Minnery, a Focus on the Family spokesman.

“A lot of things need to be made right in the world, but the right to life for the unborn is what brings hundreds of thousands of people to the streets of Washington, not global warming. It’s hard to turn to other issues until that one is made right.”

Mr. Minnery added that Focus on the Family views its work to make sure that marriage remains only between a man and a woman as a way of combating poverty.

“Trying to keep marriage intact is a way to stave off poverty,” he said. “There’s a mountain of social science that shows that that’s when poverty starts.”

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