Evangelicals Broaden Their Moral Agenda

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006

Evangelical Christian leaders are tackling a growing list of domestic and international issues, such as genocide in Darfur and global warming, despite dissension in their ranks over whether this broader moral agenda will dilute their political power just before crucial elections.

Yesterday, two dozen prominent evangelicals issued a joint appeal for President Bush to take the lead in sending a multinational, U.N.-backed peacekeeping force into the Darfur region of Sudan. They included not just liberal religious leaders but also several notable conservatives, including the Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Today, another broad coalition of evangelical leaders will begin airing advertisements on Christian radio stations calling for action to address climate change. Among them is the new president of the Christian Coalition, who has said he plans to "rebuild and rebrand" the conservative lobbying group.

These initiatives do not sit well with some grass-roots religious conservatives, who prefer to keep the focus on a tighter range of issues, principally opposition to abortion and same-sex unions.

"This new vision, taking on these liberal issues, was the straw that broke the camel's back for us," said John W. Giles, president of Christian Action Alabama, which was the Alabama branch of the Christian Coalition before it broke away from the national organization last month.

"When we heard the new president talking about his opposition to the death penalty and support for raising the minimum wage, we decided it was time to say, 'Hi-ho, Silver!' " Giles said.

The Christian Coalition's new president, the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, pastor of a megachurch in Longwood, Fla., declined to be interviewed. The chairwoman, Roberta Combs, said the board of directors has not taken a position on global warming, the death penalty or the minimum wage.

Although Hunter was listed on the Darfur appeal and the global-warming initiative as the Christian Coalition's president, he "is doing that sort of as an individual," Combs said. "These are his personal feelings." She added that the board plans to survey supporters before taking new stands.

"We will never leave our core issues, never," Combs said. "But as more people get involved and as younger people get involved, there are other issues that come to the forefront, and we will be open-minded to take a look at them."

Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., pastor of Hope Christian Church, a 3,000-member congregation in Lanham, was among the signers of the Darfur appeal. He said he knows that some evangelicals are concerned that their clout will diminish if they take on too many issues. But, like Combs, he pointed to the need to address subjects that matter to young Christians.

"I think you could call this a PR problem, because young people who are very involved in their churches understand the passion for these two issues," he said, referring to abortion and same-sex marriage, "but in the culture at large we can come across as wild-eyed bigots to some because we have only emphasized these things."

Broadening the agenda, "not to 99 things but to five or six core things," such as fighting poverty and providing aid to Africa, "helps improve our image and more accurately reflects the full panoply of our beliefs," Jackson said. "It's hard to say that those two things -- abortion and gay marriage -- are the only things God had in mind in the Bible."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company