Little by little

Evangelicals are making some progress in public influence

Issue: "More than a warlord," July 21, 2001

With political discussion in Washington having turned decidedly to the left in recent days, it's easy to lose your bearings. Just when you thought the new Bush administration was off to such a great start, and just when you had concluded the good guys might win a few rounds, the bad guys were landing some punches that really hurt.

President Bush's education bill was a loser. Charitable choice, a concept so full of promise just a month or two ago, was being stripped of its most exciting distinctives. The new patients' bill of rights sounded like an echo of Hillary Clinton.

I needed a little encouragement.

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So I found it fascinating a few days ago to join a group of folks whose main purpose was to evaluate just what is happening to evangelical Christian influence in the public sector these days. The gathering, organized by the Ethics and Public Policy Center of Washington and funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, included academics, social researchers, activists, political staffers, journalists, think tank ponderers, and others. Most, but not all, were themselves evangelical Christians.

But the group did not gather either for self-congratulation or to wring their hands in alarm. They sought an honest inventory. To my ear, what they said should have offered evangelicals a few glimpses of encouragement, but hardly anything to make them giddy. The reports suggested that in several areas of public policy debate, Christian thinking is sometimes being taken seriously. In others, of course, a biblical perspective is still laughed out of the room.

On the issue of welfare reform, for example, Calvin College's Kurt Schaefer argued that remarkable consensus has been achieved among Bible-believing Christians on several fronts: They tend now to agree, in ways they did not before, that political engagement is appropriate, and that sin affects both individuals and social structures. They tend now to agree that personal redemption is essential, but that social action is also called for. They have reached agreement that many problems of the poor are beyond the reach of the state, and must be attacked by civil society at large. In particular, the institution of the family must be renewed. Christians agree more than they used to that there really is a significant problem of poverty in the United States, and that its causes are multidimensional, requiring multiple solutions. Just getting economic incentives right is not enough; yet work, stable families, and self-sufficiency are to be encouraged, not penalized. Dr. Schaefer also argues that most Christians now agree on definitions of poverty, and that such definitions should emphasize fair access to wealth rather than measuring only the outcomes. And he says that Christians of all perspectives tend to support, with only some reservations, the welfare reform of the mid-1990s.

But if such consensus is enabling evangelicals to make something of an impact on public thinking and behavior, Dr. Schaefer said we also still disagree on important issues. Is it enough just to provide opportunities for the poor, or do we have to worry about actual effects? Is there enough of God's creation out "there" for everyone to enjoy, or do we need to think about redistributing wealth? Do biblical ideas-the Old Testament idea of Jubilee, for example-still have relevance? Does welfare action by the state merely complement voluntary activity, or does it displace it?

And all that was just on the issue of welfare reform! But the group that had gathered had a great deal more on its agenda. How, for example, were evangelicals doing on race relations? Not so well, suggested Michael Emerson of Rice University. His research indicates that Christians in general live more racially separated lives than Americans at large-but that evangelical Christians lag behind Christians in general in breaking down racial barriers. The picture of racial reconciliation among Christians who say they take the Bible seriously isn't altogether bleak. But neither is it anything to write home about.

Indeed, when this group looked at education reform, at political organization, at efforts to slow down the juggernauts of the abortion and homosexual activists, and at the challenges of modern bioethics, there was always a familiar refrain: We evangelicals may be doing a few things well. But in terms of overall impact, we're too often not much more than a few disorganized flies on the wall.

Or, as a friend used to lament to me, "I know His truth is marching on. But why do we have to stop so often to bandage up the soldiers?"

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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