Leaving the Religious Right

ByABC News

Nov. 7, 2006— -- I spoke last week in the chapel of Bethel University, a conservative evangelical school in the Minnesota heartland of the American Midwest.

Bethel has been long regarded as a safe and secure place for conservative Republican politics and as fertile ground for recruiting by the Religious Right.

In the last two elections, most Bethel students would certainly have voted for President Bush.

But the wind is changing at Bethel and among a new generation of evangelical students and pastors across the country who are defying the old conservative paradigms.

My Minnesota visit in the heat of this election season was a dramatic demonstration of a fundamental change, one that could be a very critical indicator of the future of faith and politics in America.

In Bethel's chapel, I challenged a new generation to clear up the confusion in this nation about what it means to follow Jesus.

I asked them whether they wanted to be true evangelicals, defined by the root meaning of the word "evangel," which literally means "good news."

I told them that any gospel that wasn't good news to the poor -- which was how Jesus defined his mission -- simply wasn't the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It was clear from the response in the packed chapel service that a new generation of evangelical Christians wants to be like Jesus.

Because of that, their agenda is now much broader and deeper than just abortion and gay marriage, the two things the Religious Right continues to talk about as the only "moral values" issues.

The Bethel students, like me, still believe that the sanctity of life and healthy family values are critically important, too important to be turned into partisan wedge issues to get votes at election time.

We need a deeper moral discussion of both those questions.

But younger evangelicals will no longer accept the mistaken notion that scripture somehow speaks to only two hot-button social issues. They now care about a wider range of moral issues, such as poverty and economic justice, the environment, HIV/AIDS, genocide in Darfur, human rights, sex trafficking, and matters of war and peace, especially Iraq.

Jim Wallis is author of the best-seller "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" and executive director of Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

The Religious Right is still getting it wrong.

Its "Values Voter Summit" this fall in Washington, D.C., continued to focus on its usual narrow definition of "moral values" issues, despite news headlines such as "Evangelicals Broaden Their Moral Agenda" (The Washington Post) and "New Generation of Evangelicals Has New Focus" (Minneapolis Star-Tribune).

The stories are corroborated by poll data.

For example, in a recent survey by the Center for American Progress, 77 percent of "traditionalist" evangelicals named poverty and affordable health care as the most important issue in America today, only 19 percent named abortion and same-sex marriage.

That's clearly related to a Pew Research Center poll showing that Republicans have lost nearly 20 percentage points among evangelical Christians just since the 2004 elections, a potentially critical change as we witness the 2006 elections.

Because of their wider moral values agenda, evangelicals are now leaving the Religious Right in growing numbers.

And because moderate evangelicals are key to America's political future, their defection from the narrow and partisan Religious Right is highly significant.

That doesn't mean that evangelical votes, which conservative Republicans have taken for granted, will now automatically go to liberal Democrats.

Instead, new evangelicals are eager to challenge the selective moralities of both Left and Right, and respond to a moral agenda for politics that will hold both sides accountable.

In the future, any candidate -- from either party -- who speaks the moral language of politics and lifts up the issues of social justice that the Bible talks so much about could attract the attention of this new evangelical generation.

My visit to Bethel was a day filled with hope and the possibility of a new faith-inspired generation that might truly shake up politics -- just the way people of faith and conscience are supposed to.

Jim Wallis is author of the best-seller "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" and executive director of Sojourners/Call to Renewal.