Scholar Foresees Major Shift to Evangelical Center

WASHINGTON – The evangelical center is attracting more people and emerging as an influential voice of faith witness in American politics, says an evangelical scholar in his new book.

Dr. David P. Gushee, author of The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center, along with a panel of prominent evangelical leaders affirmed Tuesday what political pundits and pollsters have for some time observed – the rise of a new breed of evangelicals that is different from the "old guards" of the Christian right.

"I am arguing in this book that over the last two decades an evangelical center, representing at least 30 percent of evangelicals and growing quickly, has been emerging," Gushee said at a first-of-its-kind panel discussion about the evangelical center.

"I suggest in the book that there is visible movement toward the center from both the right and the left, that many black and Hispanic evangelicals are best classified as centrist, and that there is a marked shift toward the center among younger evangelicals."

Evangelical Centrists are characterized by their commitment to core theological teachings in the Bible; refusal to be aligned with any political parties; combination of moral and policy concerns of both the right (abortion and marriage) and the left (poverty and war); bridging leaders from both the right and left for practical solutions to problems; and adoption of a more civil tone in relating to both Christians and non-Christians in conversation, according to Gushee.

Among the list of evangelical centrists are the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC); the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE); Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action; David Neff, executive editor of Christianity Today; and megachurch pastors Rick Warren and Joel Hunter.

Furthermore, most leaders in Christian higher education and many individuals and groups in the evangelical relief and development community are evangelical centrists, according to Gushee.

"I don't think anything will be, in the long run, more significant in American politics than the shift you see evident here today," said NAE's Cizik. "In terms of the shift that is occurring, I describe it as a slow moving earthquake. It is slow moving at times so you don't see the consequences, but you will feel it.

"Those of you who observe the evangelical movement or are part of it need to understand it," said Cizik, who wrote the forward to Gushee's book.

The NAE leader who has been championing creation care at the ire of Christian right leaders said Tuesday that evangelical centrists such as himself are "re-visioning" the movement and attempting to "recast" what they are called to do.

He also said the religious right "missed" the big picture by only seeing part of it and predicted the next issue that evangelicals will tackle is peacemaking in the "broadest of sense."

"The strategy is completely different, it is moving from a zero sum game politics – where someone else has to lose in order for us to win – to a common good vision," Cizik said.

NHCLC's Rodriguez echoed the sentiments of the shift towards the evangelical center:

"The future of evangelicalism in America is brown and it is center," he declared. "It is not right or left."

Rodriguez, who has been highly courted by presidential candidates trying to reach Hispanic evangelicals, said that historically white evangelicals have focused on the issues of marriage and life, or "righteousness and piety" issues. Meanwhile, African-American evangelicals concentrate on social justice issues such as health care, education, and poverty.

"And you have brown evangelicals and they really want to reconcile and they don't want to be either, or – but be right here in the middle," Rodriguez said. "There's a platform of both righteousness and justice…It's life, it's marriage, but it's healthcare, it's education, and the issue of poverty."

He added that there is a generational shift and an ethnic shift that will lead to an evangelical center emerging as the majority in the next five to 15 years – "and if Latinos continue to grow by the grace of God, maybe even sooner," Rodriguez joked, drawing laughter from the audience.

Gushee noted earlier in the discussion that evangelical centrists would consider voting for Sens. Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, but abortion "more than any other issue" still poses a problem for gaining their vote.

Evangelical centrists support a comprehensive view of Christian right agendas such as sanctity of life, which they see as going beyond abortion to include torture, poverty, racism, war, and environmental degradation.

"If a Democratic presidential candidate proposed a serious demand-side plan to reduce abortion by half over the next eight years, and invested real political capital in the effort, it would make a significant difference for centrist evangelicals," the author said.

Gushee is part of the group of evangelical leaders that launched last year the "Come Let Us Reason Together" initiative, in which evangelicals and progressives seek to end the culture war between the two groups and find common ground on polarizing issues such as abortion, gay rights, and the role of religion in public life.

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