dimanche, mai 27, 2007

Lancaster editorial by me

The great gulf that has long separated evangelicals and liberals on issues of societal concern has been narrowing, offering unprecedented opportunities for collaboration and real change.
The question: Is anyone paying attention?
Whether you are evangelical or Orthodox, a member of a mainline congregation or a megachurch, Pentecostal or Roman Catholic, it is hard to avoid becoming either a participant, a statistic or an innocent bystander in the culture wars playing out in American religious life today.
I should know. As an Episcopal priest, I have a ringside seat. Or maybe I'm one of the gladiators. Sometimes it's hard to tell.
For a tiny denomination (somewhere between 2 million and a 2.5 million members, depending on who's doing the counting) we manage to grab a disproportionate share of national headlines with our endless sexuality squabbles and sordid legal disputes.
Episcopalians aren't slugging it out alone. Debates over the issues of ordaining practicing homosexuals and blessing gay unions are taking place among mainline Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutheran congregations and judicatories.
Whether they are in the majority, or, as in the Episcopal Church, a vocal and often well-endowed minority, conservatives have found a voice, and are now raising it in an angry roar of protest against actions that they see as direct assaults on Scriptural authority.
Amid all the media speculation of schisms and defections in the older and established denominations, it is easy to miss the fact that moderates, and dare we say liberals, in the evangelical ranks have also found their voice.
If they are so enmeshed in their internal disputes that they are not paying attention, mainline Protestant leaders may be missing a powerful opportunity to build bridges across some of America's most well-worn religious divides.
In recent years, a diverse group that includes educators, megachurch pastors and evangelical activists began to speak publicly about issues like global warming and human rights here and abroad. Although it probably was not their intent, the effect was to break the public facade of ironclad unanimity that served conservatives so well in the past.
Ironically enough, it may have been their access to the Bush administration and status in the halls of Congress that allowed concerned evangelical Christians to take positions that might once have resulted in being cast out of the fellowship.
The ferment in the evangelical community, and the creative alliances with other organizations have been ongoing for a number of years.
Sharing their cause with humanitarian organizations, evangelicals have for quite some time been advocates for a stronger, more proactive American stance toward places where Christians face persecution, as in the ongoing genocide in Darfur.
But in 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group that claims links to 60 denominations and about 45,000 churches, came out with a broad agenda in their statement "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility."
Arguing that evangelicals had an unprecedented chance to shape public policy, the NAE document made a bold case, replete with multiple Scriptural references, that "sanctity of life" involved advocacy for human rights, for creation and for the poor as well as against abortion.
Last year a group of 86 educators, megachurch pastors (including best-selling author Rick Warren) and aid group leaders backed a major evangelical initiative to press for federal legislation to combat global warming.
In March the NAE endorsed a statement against torture written by 17 academicians and human rights activists.
Such moves toward a more inclusive idea of the sanctity of life have not come without protest from conservative evangelicals.
Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson and other evangelical leaders had demanded that the NAE board consider getting rid of vice president for governmental affairs, the Rev. Richard Cizik, because of his activism on behalf of the campaign against global warming. Conservatives have argued that evangelical activism that embraces issues more traditionally associated with liberal churches is not only distracting but threatens to split the strength of the movement.
At the March meeting, the board of directors not only affirmed his work, but in an implicit rebuke to the conservatives (none of whom are NAE members), reaffirmed their earlier document on public engagement.
In a March article in the evangelically centrist magazine Christianity Today, Institute on Religion and Democracy vice president Jerald Walz was quoted as criticizing the NAE's endorsement of a document opposing torture because those who helped write it and the original signers were mostly from the evangelical left.
Ten years ago, who knew (besides Sojourners activist Jim Wallis) there was an evangelical left?
Evangelical activists have not abandoned their commitment to conservative positions on such hot-button issues as abortion. When it comes to civil unions and gay marriage, they are still much more likely to be found cooperating with the old guard on the Christian right.
But the fact that there are now openly competing voices among American evangelicals offers parties on all sides of the theological spectrum a chance to collaborate on addressing social problems, like poverty, and potential disasters, like climate change, that don't discriminate on the basis of whether you think Charles Darwin was evil or the Virgin Birth was a fraud.
Whether our religious leaders will stop fighting with their denominational brothers and sisters long enough to notice there are workers ready to toil in the vineyard for the cause of the Gospel is a whole 'nother question.
So far, to use an admittedly pagan metaphor, the omens don't look too promising.


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