Friday, October 12, 2007

Common Ground

I subscribe to email updates from Sojourners, a Christian group that advocates for the "biblical call to social justice," as their website states. While organizations like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and other similar groups advocate on issues like abortion, gay marriage, pornography and the like, Sojourners seeks to implement government policies to help the poor and needy like housing, health care and similar services. Their update today caught my attention, as it included a link to a report by a group called called Third Way, entitled Come Let Us Reason Together, A Fresh Look at Shared Cultural Values Between Progressives and Evangelicals. As the name of the report implies, Third Way attempts to find common ground between the two ends of the Christian faith -- what some might call "liberal" and "conservative."

Many political pundits see Evangelical Christians as a voting block (who usually vote Republican) and fail to see the nuanced political beliefs that make up people that attend Christian churches. As early as 20 years ago, this stereotype could not be as easily made. The report notes, "[In] 1988, Evangelicals were split evenly between the two political parties. In the 1980s, partisan divides among Evangelicals were correlated heavily to region, with Evangelicals in the South still tenuously wedded to the Democratic Party and Evangelicals outside the South more connected to the GOP." They note that while Evangelicals make up one quarter of the population, our influence and visibility has increased dramatically due to recent partisanship. "By 2004, 56% of Evangelicals identified with or leaned Republican, with only 27% identifying with or leaning Democrat; the remaining 17% identified as Independent(Green 2004). Partisanship in 2006 was fairly consistent with this picture, although moderately more favorable to the Democrats: 59% of Evangelicals identified with or leaned Republican, 34% identified with or leaned Democrat, and 7% identified as Independent."

As I noted earlier, things are not as simple as the numbers might portray. Progressive/Liberal Evangelicals do not necessarily fall in line with the more conservative branch of the faith. This simplistic assumption has been a mistake of the Democratic Party, who has largely dismissed the possibility of reaching Evangelical votes. This assumption has been to their detriment. Today, Democratic presidential candidates have taken an about-face and are courting Evangelical voters. They seem to have become more comfortable talking about their faith.

This could be because over half of Evangelicals can be considered what the study calls "Centrists (41%), and Modernists (11%)." They entitle Conservative Evangelicals at Traditionalists (48%). The study makes an interesting observation regarding these groups and church attendance, as well as beliefs in the Bible. "Traditionalists are the most orthodox, attend religious services most frequently, and record the highest rates of biblical literalism. Centrists are more religiously moderate, attend religious services less frequently, and hold less literal views of the Bible. Modernists are less traditionally religious, attend religious services a few times a year, and hold low rates of biblical literalism. Although these subgroup distinctions are based entirely on religious measures, they are highly correlated to political opinion and provide an initial window into the complexities of the relationship between religion and politics among Evangelicals." The report also has an accurate analysis of why Conservatives believe in a limited form of government. It also describes their concerns with religion being taken out of the public square.

The power of the religious right certainly is not fading. As I have noted in other postings, Republicans are fearful that Conservative Evangelicals will break rank to support a 3rd party candidate. But it appears that more moderate Evangelical voices are starting to be heard, such as groups like Sojourners and especially younger Christian's in their 20's and 30's (like myself). Where does this leave us then? How can both sides work together in the public square in the cause of service for Jesus Christ? Third Way makes a few suggestions in areas like gay & lesbian issues, abortion, human embryos, protection of children, and responsible fatherhood. Most importantly, however, is that they want to open up a dialogue between Christians (which is somewhat ironic). Liberals and Conservatives have the same goals, one would hope, but different methods of achieving them. Once we can understand one another, it makes it possible to work together. If we were to simply achieve productive, honest dialogue, it would be ground gained beyond where we are now. Any eventual alliance between the two sides has the potential to produce a powerful force to change our country for the good.

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