Exploring Christian pews in the middle

compassion forumI realize that some of the following information is old news, yet I continue to hear comments from GetReligion readers and friends (and friends who are readers) about the fact that the press isn't covering the religious left enough. This is a point this blog has been making from Day One and, for sure, after the rise of Sen. Barack Obama. At the same time, it's clear that the mainstream press' growing awareness of the "broadening evangelicals" -- With a nod to the late Pope John Paul II, can we call them "culture of life" evangelicals? -- will continue to be a story. Thus, let me point journalists and readers toward the following passage in a recent Weekly Standard article by Terry Eastland, a political journalist who got religion before getting religion was cool. This focuses on the roots of Rick Warren's Saddleback Church forum, which, in fact, didn't start out as his forum at all:

... (Those) who think politically conservative evangelicals were the prime movers in creating the forum at a church whose members, Warren himself has speculated, voted 85 percent for George Bush in 2004 will have to think again. Indicative of today's consensus about religion and politics is the fact that an interfaith organization, Faith in Public Life, established out of concern that in the 2004 election year the Religious Right had dominated the faith-and-politics discussion, made the move that led to Saddleback.

During the primary season, Faith in Public Life organized a "Compassion Forum" at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. There were three presidential candidates still running when it was held -- McCain on the Republican side, and Obama and Hillary Clinton on the Democratic -- but McCain was unable to attend. So members of the "Compassion Forum Board," described on the Faith in Public Life website as "a diverse coalition of faith leaders from across the ideological spectrum," asked the two Democrats questions designed "to elevate" such "compassion issues" as "poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change, abortion reduction, genocide in Darfur, and torture."

Pleased with that event, Faith in Public Life wanted to have another. Looking this time to partner with an evangelical but not one associated with the religious right, the organization asked Warren whether he might host a compassion forum, this time with the two presumptive nominees, Obama and McCain.

If you study the people who were behind this move, it's pretty clear that this is part of a wider outreach by Democrats and mainline Protestants into the wider evangelical world. This is a totally valid project and one that should be cheered, so long as similar efforts on the right draw similar responses from journalists and lawyers. The growth of two different camps of evangelicals -- the "consistent life" camp and a true, candid evangelical left -- are both important news stories in this era and deserve more coverage.

At the same time, these groups must not be confused. This has been a major issue for the mainstream press all the way back to the early work of Ronald Sider and his landmark, and still controversial, revised, expanded and updated and update book, "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger." Rest assured there are probably several editions of that book on Warren's bookshelf (I have three).

With that in mind, please click here and head on over to a recent Wall Street Journal piece by Naomi Schaefer Riley entitled "What Saddleback's Pastor Really Thinks About Politics." I have been meaning to point this article out for over a week. The lede is blunt, blunt, blunt (and I am not sure that I agree with Warren on some of this, especially the thumb and forefinger part):

"Overhyped." That's how the Rev. Rick Warren describes the notion that the evangelical vote is "up for grabs" in this election. But what about the significance of the evangelical left, I asked the pastor of Saddleback Church after his forum with the presidential candidates last weekend. "This big," he says, holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.

Sitting on a small stone patio outside the church's "green room," I question him further -- has he heard that the Democratic Party is changing its abortion platform? "Window dressing," he replies. "Too little, too late." But Rev. Jim Wallis, the self-described progressive evangelical, has been saying that the change is a big victory. "Jim Wallis is a spokesman for the Democratic Party," Mr. Warren responds dismissively.

070922 na01lead hsmall widecBut here is the section that political journalists need to read, if they are trying to read -- oh, please go read them -- the Pew Forum numbers on just how many mainstream evangelicals may be drifting to the moral and cultural left in this election year.

But there is a misunderstanding by the media, says Mr. Warren. "A lot of people hear [about a broader agenda] and they think, 'Oh, evangelicals are giving up on believing that life begins at conception,'" he explains. "They're not giving up on that at all. Not at all." ...

And as for the notion that younger evangelicals are ready for rebellion against their parents' ideals, Mr. Warren cites polls showing that the younger evangelical generation is even more concerned about abortion than the older one. After the Sunday morning service at Saddleback ... I interviewed 15 random attendees. Only two were Obama supporters, one of whom was a British guy on holiday. Almost all of the remaining congregants mentioned abortion as the most significant issue affecting their vote in November.

So why is most of the press under the impression that Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist, is so different from, say, Focus on the Family president James Dobson? "It's a matter of tone," says an amused Mr. Warren, who seems unable to name any particular theological issues on which he and Mr. Dobson disagree.

Wait, read that again. Note a crucial word in that statement -- which is paraphrased, but rings true to me. Note the word "theological" in that comment about Dobson. Not "political," but "theological." There are doctrinal issues at stake, here.

And there is the rub and, I might add, the story.

The ancient moral doctrines of Christianity do not fit neatly into the platforms of either party. Consistent life voters have been struggling for a long, long time on how to handle this situation. Click here for a piece of my own political story, an article I hope to update soon. It was written for Salon.com, but rejected by editors there. You can also read this decade-old piece by my dear friend, Frederica Mathewes-Green on her journey.

Anyway, if I may be even more honest and personal for a moment, many old-school Democrats like me (people with FDR portraits in their offices) are waiting to see if there is any chance for Obama to compromise and seek middle ground on the hot-button issues. For voters like me, he really needs to say that abortion is evil, that the number of abortions should fall and that some legal restrictions must be put in place. In other words, the current abortion regime must change -- along with increased efforts to support women and children before and after they choose life.

So read the whole Warren interview. There is a big story out there in the churches -- ancient and modern -- that are caught in the middle. I am not sure if the press gets it, yet.

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