WASHINGTON – The line dividing evangelicals from progressives blurred Wednesday as members from both parties joined in a new mission to erase long-held stereotypes of one another and seek commonality on polarizing issues such as abortion, gay rights, and the role of religion in public life.
Both sides agreed the "civil war" between evangelicals and progressives needs to end and common ground pursued in order for the nation to make significant progress on divisive issues.
"I think the way we have been dealing with differences in this country simply doesn't work," said the Rev. Dr. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of the 10,000-member Northland Church in Florida.
The evangelical leader contends arguments between some evangelical leaders and liberals have not only blocked progress but also isolated a lot of evangelicals who are looking for "reasonable" leadership that allows for development while maintaining values.
"I think it has almost taken until now for us to realize that this isn't working," responded Hunter when asked why it has taken evangelicals so long to work with progressives.
The pastor told a story about a recent conversation he had with one of his church member on abortion. The female congregant was a former dancer and had five abortions. She said that although she was not sure she wanted to have an abortion walking into the clinic, the anti-abortionists yelling and holding placards outside the clinic "absolutely" confirmed her decision to have the abortions.
"To me it is a picture of how it ain't working," emphasized Hunter, who is on the board of directors for the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Alliance. "The thing we think is curing the problem isn't curing the problem. I think we (evangelicals) are maybe slow learners, but we're ready," he said drawing laughter from the audience.
Evangelical and liberal leaders together held up their joint new paper, "Come Let Us Reason Together: A Fresh Look at Shared Cultural Values Between Progressives and Evangelicals," as a model of how the two sides could cooperate and find a shared vision on divisive cultural issues.
"When we started this process, the progressive and Evangelical communities had begun to come together on issues like Darfur and the environment. We believed we could go further and talk with each other, and not at each other, even about the toughest cultural issues," said Rachel Laser, director of the progressive think tank Third Way Culture Program and co-author of the paper. Laser was formerly the director of Planned Parenthood in the Washington, D.C.-area.
The paper is the first of its kind to outline a way for evangelicals and progressives to bridge the cultural divide.
"This paper has achieved what many thought was impossible," Laser said. "It has taken the first steps forward on issues at the heart of the cultural wars."
Dr. Robert P. Jones, co-author of the paper and religion scholar, highlighted a key finding in the paper which helps people understand the diversity of the evangelical community.
The new formula shows evangelicals are roughly one-fifth progressive, one-third moderate, and one-half conservative.
In other words, although half of the evangelical population is more conservative than the general population, the other half have views that can co-exist comfortably with progressive ideas, explained Jones.
The movement's representatives assured skeptics that neither side had to compromise their beliefs, but that there was plenty of room for consensus even on tough issues like gay rights and abortion.
On gay rights, for example, progressives and evangelicals found they both shared a commitment to human dignity and the Golden Rule.
For evangelicals, support of human dignity is based on the ultimate belief that all humans are created in the image of God, explained the paper. As a result, all humans deserve respect regardless of what they do and believe.
"Protecting the human rights and dignity of all, even for those with whom one disagrees, is not only a consistent thing to do; it is a proud American tradition and a high moral and religious calling," read the joint paper.
However, the group also agreed no legislation should infringe on the right of religious groups to manage their communities, regulate their religious practices, and to express their beliefs publicly on issues around homosexuality.
Evangelical and liberal supporters of the initiative will spread the idea by inviting the other side on broadcasted shows for dialogue, organize discussions among leaders on some of the divisive issues, among other methods.
"Come Let Us Reason Together answers the plea form the vast majority of Americans who want an end to the rancor and divisiveness. This is a path forward together," they concluded.
Other supporters of the initiative include: Dr. David P. Gushee, distinguished professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology; the Rev. Brian McLaren, author, speaker and networker among innovative Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists; Dr. Paul de Vries, president of New York Divinity School; Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners/Call to Renewal; and Tony Campolo, president of The Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education.