Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Avoid Left-Behind Politics

Stanley Carlson-Thies


May 23, 2008

Evangelical Christians are in a political ferment. News stories tell of their divorce from the Religious Right. Books and conferences sketch an emerging evangelical “center.” Declarations and manifestos proclaim that Evangelicals are no longer satisfied with a narrow culture-war agenda but are concerned with a broad range of domestic and international issues. Once despised and overlooked, evangelical voters are now openly courted by both parties. The new stars of the evangelical center are constantly called by Democratic Party operatives and campaign advisers who are seeking to tap into this large voting bloc that is newly “in play.”

In short, this is a time of great potential for evangelical Christians desiring to be effective earthly citizens. What is promising is the growing political maturity. As the National Association of Evangelicals’ 2004 declaration, “For the Health of the Nation,” emphasized, a biblical political agenda cannot ignore creation care, human rights, assistance to the poor, and a sober view of military might—issues not high on the agenda of the Religious Right. Adding issues of social service and justice to the evangelical political agenda is all to the good, as long as proper attention is paid to the limits of what government can do and to the proper encouragement of civil society.

Yet this is also a time of great peril. Danger lurks in the siren-call of popularity and in the constraints of our two-party system. Relishing popularity and wanting to flee their right-wing captivity, Evangelicals are tempted to abandon policy stances that aren’t popular with the secular elite. That is, Evangelicals may add a commitment to the environment but ditch the pro-life cause, embrace human rights but leave behind religious freedom and its inconvenient defense of religious staffing for faith-based organizations, agitate for universal health insurance while dropping a robust defense of traditional marriage and sexual norms. But that would be to substitute one truncated political agenda for another.

The temptation to suppress historical evangelical commitments to life, religious freedom, and marriage is all the greater because of the slanted platforms of our two main political parties. Just as Republicans have been weak on environmental and anti-poverty causes, the Democrats have been dismissive of traditional moral standards and a robust religious presence in public life. To embrace one party or the other can mean choosing for a partial agenda. Neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party champions all of the issues Evangelicals are now proclaiming to be vital.

And yet hanging back is no solution either, for practical politics largely runs along partisan channels. Maintaining political purity by avoiding engagement with actual politicians is hardly a way to work for justice. The recently released “Evangelical Manifesto” rightly calls evangelical Christians to be “fully engaged in public affairs, but never completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, class, tribe, or national identity.” That’s the biblical way. But it is not the natural way in American politics.

The Manifesto also declares, “The Evangelical soul is not for sale.” It ought not to be. In putting important new domestic and international causes on the agenda, Evangelicals must be careful not to leave behind vital existing commitments to the defense of life, to the safeguarding of the faith of faith-based organizations, and to the championing of traditional marriage and family. The evangelical contribution to political life, in cooperation with Catholic and other religious citizens, surely must be to champion vital causes that might otherwise be lost if left only in the hands of the Republicans or the Democrats.

— Stanley Carlson-Thies
     Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”