Evangelical Movement at 'Head-Snapping' Moment, Says Scholar

LANDOVER, Md. – The evangelical movement is at a "head-snapping" generational change with younger evangelicals "revolting" against the tone of the Christian Right, says a prominent religious scholar.

Across the nation, young evangelicals are naming Rick Warren or Bono as their role model for social engagement, rather than a Christian Right leader, says Michael Gerson, senior research fellow in the Center on Faith & International Affairs at the Institute for Global Engagement.

Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forrest, Calif., is known for mobilizing evangelical churches in the battle against HIV/AID in Africa, while U2 frontman Bono is one of the world's leading anti-poverty activists.

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"We are seeing a head-snapping generational change," contends Gerson, who was a top aide and former speech writer to President George W. Bush. "The model of social engagement of the religious right is increasingly exhausted."

At the recent biennial Evangelical Leaders Forum, Gerson offered three reasons for the change: a recovery of scriptural emphasis, a revolt against the tone and style of the Religious Right, and the effects of short-term mission trips on young Christians.

According to Gerson, young Americans return from short-term mission trips with a changed worldview. Their exposure to poverty, HIV/AIDS, and economic injustice make them concerned about these issues and want to improve the problems.

But Gerson quickly clarified that the movement to care about a broader set of issues, beyond abortion and family, is not an innovation but an evangelical tradition.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement was an opponent of slavery who had encouraged William Wilberforce to end it, Gerson pointed out. And Wilberforce was motivated by his evangelical conviction to lead the British movement to abolish the slave trade.

Other Christian leaders in history have led movements for women's suffrage, minimum wage, and opposition to capital punishment.

"This combination of moral conservatism with social activism is the evangelical tradition," asserted Gerson, who was a biblical studies and theology major at Wheaton College.

"Evangelical social engagement is becoming broader, but this is not an innovation but a revival. Not a fresh track in the snow, but a rugged path of history."

For those fearing that younger evangelicals are becoming liberal Democrats, Gerson assured that the new evangelicalism is not trading moral conservatism for social justice. He pointed to polls that show younger evangelicals tend to be even more pro-life than their parents.

The new generation of evangelicals is simply returning to the movement's past tradition and adding social justice to moral conservatism, he concluded.

Gerson spoke on the last day of the two-day, invitation-only Evangelical Leaders Forum organized by the National Association of Evangelicals. Some 200 evangelical leaders attended the Oct. 8-9 event hosted at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover, Md. This year's theme was "Christian Justice in Difficult Times."

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