Emphasis Shifts for New Breed of Evangelicals

New York Times/May 21, 2007
By Michael Luo and Laurie Goodstein

The evangelical Christian movement, which has been pivotal in reshaping the country's political landscape since the 1980s, has shifted in potentially momentous ways in recent years, broadening its agenda and exposing new fissures.

The death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell last week highlighted the fact that many of the movement's fiery old guard who helped lead conservative Christians into the embrace of the Republican Party are aging and slowly receding from the scene. In their stead, a new generation of leaders who have mostly avoided the openly partisan and confrontational approach of their forebears have become increasingly influential.

Typified by megachurch pastors like the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and the Rev. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, the new breed of evangelical leaders — often to the dismay of those who came before them — are more likely to speak out about more liberal causes like AIDS, Darfur, poverty and global warming than controversial social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

But the conservative legacy of the religious right persists, and abortion continues to be a defining issue, even a litmus test, for most evangelicals, including younger ones, according to interviews and survey data.

"The abortion issue is going to continue to be a unifying factor among evangelicals and Catholics," said the Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who is often held up as an example of the new model of conservative Christian leaders. "That's not going to go away."

The persistence of abortion as a core concern for evangelical voters, who continue to represent a broad swath of the Republican base, could complicate efforts by Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has been leading the Republican presidential field in nationwide polls, to get primary voters to move past the issue and accept his support for abortion rights. The broader impact that the changing evangelical leadership may have on politics appears to be just beginning. Many evangelicals remain uneasy about the other leading Republican contenders, Mitt Romney, because of his Mormon faith and his past support for abortion rights, and Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has long had a tenuous relationship with conservative Christians.

The evangelical movement, however, is clearly evolving. Members of the baby boomer generation are taking over the reins, said D. G. Hart, a historian of religion. The boomers, he said, are markedly different in style and temperament from their predecessors and much more animated by social justice and humanitarianism. Most of them are pastors, as opposed to the heads of advocacy groups, making them more reluctant to plunge into politics to avoid alienating diverse congregations.

"I just don't see in the next generation of so-called evangelical leaders anyone as politically activist-minded" as Mr. Falwell, the Rev. Pat Robertson or James C. Dobson, he said.

Mr. Warren, 53, who wrote the spiritual best seller "The Purpose-Driven Life," has dedicated much of the past few years to mobilizing evangelicals to eradicate AIDS in Africa. Even so, he remains theologically and socially quite conservative. He tempers the sharper edges of his beliefs with a laid-back style (his usual Sunday best is a Hawaiian shirt). Although he does not speak from the pulpit about politics, he sent a letter before the 2004 presidential election to pastors in a vast network who draw advice from him, urging them to weigh heavily "nonnegotiable" issues like abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage from a biblical perspective.

Mr. Warren, along with Mr. Hybels, 55, and several dozen other evangelical leaders, signed a call to action last year on climate change. The initiative brought together more mainstream conservative Christian leaders with prominent liberal evangelicals, such as the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners and the Rev. Ronald J. Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, who have long championed progressive causes. Notably absent from the list of signatories were several old lions of the Christian right, some of whom were openly critical of the effort: Mr. Falwell; Mr. Robertson, 77; and Mr. Dobson, 71, founder of Focus on the Family.

Another evangelical standard-bearer who did not sign the statement was Charles W. Colson, 75, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, who said in an interview that there were many environmental groups behind the statement that were hostile to evangelical causes. Nevertheless, he said he appreciated the direction that younger evangelical leaders are taking the movement.

"What's happening today is the evangelical movement is growing up," he said. "The evangelical political conscience today is much more sophisticated than it was in the early '80s."

The Rev. Joel C. Hunter, 59, a Florida megachurch pastor who signed the climate change statement, stepped down last year as the president-elect of the Christian Coalition over what he said was resistance among members of the organization's board to expanding its concerns beyond the usual social issues. He has been active in encouraging evangelicals to speak out on issues like global poverty, and signed on this month to an evangelical declaration on immigration reform that called for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He is critical of the tactics and rhetoric employed by the old religious right.

Despite the changes in the movement, Mr. Hunter predicted that Mr. Giuliani would not garner much of the evangelical vote because of his liberal views on social issues.

"There always will be in the evangelical movement a strong identification with what we call the traditional moral issues — abortion, marriage between a man and a woman, addiction to pornography," he said.

A poll conducted this year by the Pew Research Center showed that white evangelical Protestants have similar concerns to other Americans, including the war in Iraq, education and the economy, but a far greater percentage continue to cite tackling the "moral breakdown" in society as a key priority. They remain solidly Republican.

"While I think a lot of their leaders have begun to talk about other things, like Darfur and the environment, this remains a pretty social conservative group in some respects," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "There doesn't seem to me to be any sign of a sea change."

Indeed, the survey showed that fewer evangelicals assigned top priority to protecting the environment than did the overall population, and that roughly the same number of evangelicals identified alleviating poverty as a top priority as did the general population. Meanwhile, evangelicals identified reducing illegal immigration as a priority at a much greater percentage than the population as a whole.

In a separate survey in 2004, John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, however, placed evangelicals into three camps — traditionalist, centrist and modernist — based on the how rigidly they adhered to their beliefs and their willingness to adapt them to a changing world. The traditionalists are evangelicals who are usually labeled as the Christian right, while the centrists might be represented by the newer breed of evangelical leaders, who remain socially and theologically quite conservative but have mostly sought to avoid politics. The two camps are roughly the same size, each representing 40 to 50 percent of the total.

Experts agree, though, that the centrist camp is growing. Estimates of the number of evangelicals nationwide vary, depending on how they are counted and how the term is defined, but Mr. Green put it at 26.3 percent of Americans.

The full electoral implications of the shift that is occurring in the movement will likely unfold over the next decade or more, several religious experts and activists said, as opposed to in this next presidential election cycle.

"I think we're talking about a 20-year effect," said Andy Crouch, an editor at Christianity Today.

The tremors of change are, nevertheless, detectable, especially among younger evangelicals. Many are intrigued by Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, who has demonstrated the ability to speak convincingly about his faith on the campaign trail, as a presidential candidate.

"The person I just hear about all the time is Obama because he is seen as spiritually serious, even if people know he's really kind of a liberal Christian," Mr. Crouch said.

Gabe Lyons, 32, is emblematic of the transformation among many younger evangelicals. He grew up in Lynchburg, Va., attending Mr. Falwell's church. But he has shied away from politics. Instead, he heads the Fermi Project, a loose "collective" dedicated to teaching evangelicals to shape culture through other means, including media and the arts.

"I believe politics just isn't as important to younger evangelicals as it has been for the older generations because we recognize from experience that politics does not shape the morality of a culture," he said. "It simply reflects what the larger culture wants."

There are other signs of attitude changes among younger evangelicals. Recent surveys conducted by the Barna Group show that younger "born again" Christians are more accepting of homosexuality than older ones and are less resistant to affording gays equal rights. But on abortion, they remain almost as conservative as their parents — more fodder for both political parties to weigh as they consider the future.

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