An Evangelical Identity Crisis

It was a cold Halloween in Colorado Springs–The high barely hit 27 degrees–as Dr. James Dobson went about his work last week on the sprawling Focus on the Family campus he built in the shadows of the Rockies. From the evangelical organization’s lofty perch (the city sits 6,035 feet above sea level), in the spirit of a day devoted to ghosts and goblins, Dobson’s radio show, which reaches 220 million people worldwide, evoked what he hoped would be dark and scary visions for his fellow evangelical Christians: a nation filled with married gay couples. With same-sex-marriage initiatives on ballots in eight states, Dobson told his flock in a taped broadcast, they could not afford to stay home on Election Day. If they did, “we could … begin to have same-sex marriage in places all over the country.”

Meanwhile, in Leawood, Kans., a suburb near the Missouri border, a 42-year-old evangelical pastor named Adam Hamilton was preaching an entirely different message. He was helping his 14,000 members parse the parables in Matthew 13–the wheat and the weeds, the good fish and bad. “Our task is not to go around judging people–Jesus didn’t do that,” he tells NEWSWEEK. He encourages his congregation to vote, he says, but when they do they’re neither predictably Republican nor Democratic. On the issues, many are increasingly frustrated with the war in Iraq; they’re conservative on abortion, but they “express compassion” for homosexuals. The religious right has “gone too far,” says Hamilton. “They’ve lost their focus on the spirit of Jesus and have separated the world into black and white, when the world is much more gray.” He adds: “I can’t see Jesus standing with signs at an anti-gay rally. It’s hard to picture that.”

Two men of God, two flocks, two starkly opposing visions: from Dobson to Hamilton and through the geographical heart of the country runs a fault line that is increasingly dividing evangelical Christians in America in the first years of the 21st century, revealing the movement to be more complex, and more interesting, than the usual caricatures suggest. It is all too easy for those who do not share the evangelical faith to turn into latter-day H. L. Menckens, dismissing the movement as a collection of hard-shells and hypocrites; the news that the Rev. Ted Haggard, the former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, is now caught up in a sex-and-meth scandal involving a male prostitute only reinforces the instinct to consign the religious right to the fringe of American life and politics.

But now, more than three decades after Roe v. Wade propelled religious conservatives fully into the arena, a new generation of evangelical believers is pressing beyond the religious right of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, trying to broaden the movement’s focus from the familiar wars about sex to include issues of social and economic justice. The result is a new hour of decision for evangelicals: How much do they have to show for the decades of activism? And if they are to turn from what Roger Williams called “the garden of Christ’s church” to fight the battles of “the wilderness of the world,” what should those battles be?

For the first time in a long while, then, there is a serious rethinking of the politics of Jesus in America–or at least the efforts of different elements in the country, from believers of progressive, moderate and conservative bents, to claim they are acting in his name in the public sphere. “In this world ye shall have tribulation,” Jesus told his disciples–a decided understatement. Though he added the reassurance that they should “be of good cheer; I have overcome the world,” those disciples and their heirs down two millennia still face tribulation and trouble, and currently stand at a crossroads. Can they move beyond the apparent confines of the religious right as popularly understood, or are they destined to seem harsh and intolerant–the opposite of what their own faith would have them be? The search for an answer to that question goes to the heart of what American life and politics will look like as we face a landmark midterm election this week and a wide-open presidential race two years hence.

Some Christians, exhausted by divisive wedge politics, are going back to the Bible and embracing a wider-ranging agenda, one that emphasizes reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised. Almost unanimously, these evangelicals cite as a model Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. Members of his church sign up for missionary stints in Africa, resolve to feed the homeless and see themselves as part of a global Christian community. Over the past six months, Warren has added his name to a public letter condemning abortion and embryonic-stem-cell research, as well as to one demanding an end to atrocities in Darfur and another denouncing torture. “Rick Warren … has a lightness of being,” says John DiIulio, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and former Bush White House staffer. “How do you get coordinates for a guy who talks about poverty like a liberal Catholic?”