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Religion: How shall we then vote?

Religion | Evangelicals tweak the language of their political manifesto after news media reports characterize it as a call for retreat

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

It was the news media version of the "telephone game"-the parlor pastime in which players whisper a message at one end of a room and hilariously distort it by the time it reaches the other.

But the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) wasn't laughing. On June 20, CBS News and the Associated Press wire reported that the group, which represents 52 Bible-teaching denominations and independent churches, was urging its members to back away from politics-particularly from knee-jerk Republicanism.

The AP reported that the NAE was "mulling guidelines that would warn the faithful against allying themselves too closely with any one political party." The guidelines' authors, according to the story, "said evangelicals must step back from politics."

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NAE is indeed considering guidelines, and has been since its 2001 convention in Dallas-Ft. Worth, said Richard Cizik, NAE vice president for government affairs. But the 12-page declaration-"For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility"-intends the polar opposite of the media spin: It urges Christians toward, not away from, public engagement.

"Never before has God given American evangelicals such an awesome opportunity to shape public policy," a draft version of the declaration reads. "Disengagement [from politics] is not an option." Instead, girded by biblical principles, evangelicals should march boldly into the public forum.

Mr. Cizik spent June 21 doing damage control, explaining to concerned callers that the real intent of NAE's declaration was to "address any reservations Christians may have in getting involved in politics, and to give the biblical rationale for doing just that."

One result of the news fracas was that the NAE quietly jettisoned language that seemed to discourage evangelicals from their traditionally close association with the GOP. Evangelicals, the original version read, "must guard against over-identifying Christian social goals with a single political party, lest nonbelievers think that Christian faith is essentially political in nature." News media reports had highlighted that statement above all others in the 5,500-word document. "We changed that line today," Mr. Cizik told WORLD on June 21. "We had been in the process of doing so, but we knew today that we had to."

NAE may also have known that some elements of its new declaration would raise eyebrows among some conservative evangelicals. In its effort to balance liberal and conservative political views, the group named Ron Sider, a left-leaning seminary professor and Clinton apologist, to co-chair the drafting committee. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Sider explained the manifesto as an attempt to think through "a sophisticated, integrated, comprehensive [political action] framework that is grounded in biblical values but takes in the complexity of the world."

For many Christians, the question will be whether the world's "complexity" requires solutions like affirmative action or socialist economics. While the report rehearses well-known evangelical positions on commitment to family, the pursuit of mercy, and opposition to abortion and gay marriage, it also contains a healthy-even liberal-dose of terms like "social equality" and "economic justice." It champions "legal remedies for the lingering effects of our racist history," and "structural" (read: government) solutions to "gross disparities in opportunity and income," suggesting that the Bible models periodic redistribution of wealth. Christians, the declaration also states, should recycle. There is even a veiled reference to global warming.

"For the Health of the Nation" may be, in parts, a valuable corrective to evangelical thinking about the potential scope of faith-based political activism. But critics say the document's implicit-and sometimes explicit-insistence that government programs are the antidote to social ills misses the biblical mark and could prove divisive in the long run.

"The debate evangelicals are having among themselves today is not whether Christians should be concerned for justice, which we should, but what role and how large a role government should have in creating that justice," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "The debate we now need to have is whether certain policies have created more justice for the marginalized, or have they made matters worse? Many eminent social scientists think the latter."

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