Will evangelicals sustain their traditionally high level of support for Republicans in next year's election, despite Evangelical Left exertions to peel away some evangelicals on issues like poverty and the environment?
Long-time Religious Left activist Jim Wallis is the chief cheerleader for shifting evangelicals leftward and has aired some of his talking points in recent debates with conservatives, including Southern Baptist leaders Al Mohler and Richard Land, plus Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.
"God doesn't mind prosperity as long as it is shared," Wallis reassuringly admitted during his exchange with Brooks before the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) in Indianapolis last month. "God doesn't judge nations by their GNP, by their military fire power, or how much their popular culture is the envy of the world. God says I will judge you by how you treat the most vulnerable in your midst."
It's a constant theme for Wallis and the Religious Left that government's central purpose is poverty alleviation, to be accomplished mainly through wealth redistribution. Although identifying with and appealing to evangelicals, who are America's largest religious demographic, Walls and allies are the heirs of early 20th century Social Gospel progressivism. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. funded much of liberal Protestantism's early work, building a whole cathedral in New York called Riverside Church to enthrone Harry Emerson Fosdick, the Social Gospel's most mesmerizing preacher. Fosdick, like other liberal Protestants who confidently assumed they represented the future, rejected much of Christianity's supernatural elements in favor endless trumpet calls for ethical reforms and social justice.
Of course, the institutional heirs of Social Gospel Protestantism are mostly dead or dying. Witness the emptying offices of the once prestigious National Council of Churches, located across the street from Riverside Church in another building built with Rockefeller largesse. Conservative Protestants, whom Fosdick, Rockefeller and others once thought permanently defeated, have surged for the last 60 years, now outnumbering Mainline Protestants, and necessitating the solicitous attentions of Jim Wallis and others and anxious for their votes.
Wallis has his own version of Rockefeller in George Soros, whose philanthropy recently granted Wallis another grant, despite last year's controversy over revelations of earlier Soros grants, which Wallis initially denied. At least Rockefeller was a devout churchman, who kept to Baptist avoidance of liquor, cigarettes and public dancing, and who genuinely believed in the Social Gospel's spiritual power. In contrast, Soros is an atheist with seemingly sees organized religion as only a potentially useful tool for advancing his leftist politics. Or, more likely, he hopes his philanthropy through Wallis and other Religious Left groups can at least partly neutralize the effectiveness of conservative religionists.
In his "dialogue" with Brooks, Wallis praised Occupy Wall Street and echoed its complaints about the "1%" and "the fundamental inequality that is greater than it's ever been since the Great Depression." Wallis's publicly reported salary from his Sojourners group seems to place him at least in the top "2%," and perhaps his royalties from popular books push him higher. An affective salesman and fundraiser, he undoubtedly earns his income. But complaints about the "1%" seem often to come from scribes and activists who are themselves in or close to that supposedly sinister bracket, and who are often backed by philanthropists who are well within it.
The Reverend Fosdick, even while inveighing against the wealthy from Riverside's pulpit during the 1930s, readily admitted he was himself among America's richest. His patron, Rockefeller, indulged him, though sometimes privately questioned the preacher's condemnation of businessmen. Maybe Fosdick would have praised Occupy Wall Street, though it's doubtful the starched collared Victorian clergyman would have personally visited or emotionally connected to the Occupiers as Wallis has.
Aligning with Occupy Wall Street is a little off message for the Wallis of recent years, who has sought a cozy centrist image to appeal beyond the Left. In his own account of his exchange this week at the National Press Club with Southern Baptist conservative Richard Land, Wallis more characteristically emphasized supposed common ground between them, citing immigration reform, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and international aid. He celebrated that same-sex marriage and abortion never arose as topics. The Evangelical Left eagerly strives to minimize evangelical concerns about social issues is favor of a form of social justice that always involves expanding government regulation and taxation. And Wallis likes to portray himself as a great synthesizer of divergent views.
Last month's debate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago between Wallis and Al Mohler, who heads the largest South Baptist seminary, focused on social justice's role in the Gospel. Mohler stressed that salvation and holiness were the Gospel's main goals. Wallis referred to the Sermon on the Mount as the "Magna Carta of the Kingdom" and to Jesus' announcement of "good news to the poor" as his "Nazareth Manifesto." So Jesus was essentially announcing a political program very similar to what Wallis summarized in his presumptuously titled best-selling 2005 book and ongoing blog, "God Politics."
Can Wallis and the Evangelical Left persuade most evangelicals that Rockefeller-backed religious progressives of 100 years ago were actually right in distilling the Gospel down to social reform? Probably not. But persuading only a minority could dramatically shift American politics.
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