In a column mulling the role of Evangelicals in the 2008 election, Bishop Harry Jackson claims that in recent years, they “voted their values” based on “gay marriage and pro-life concerns” – an assumption contradicted by the Center for American Values poll – but that now the Evangelical movement is undergoing a “political makeover.” One might guess that Jackson was referring to the dispute between the National Association of Evangelicals and religious-right activists (including Jackson) led by James Dobson over whether talking about climate change and torture distracts from the core mission of Christians. Instead, Jackson – who is a frequent Religious Right spokesman – sees that debate as part of a liberal conspiracy to undermine “the historic passion that the ‘moral majority’ has had for the issues of protection of life and guarding the traditional family”:
During this transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, a host of enemies are attempting to prevent an evangelical resurrection. A sophisticated, pincer strategy is being waged against them by two groups––liberal Christians and the liberal press. Both groups fear that the sleeping giant will awaken with an attitude.
Of course, this concern by the Dobson group that outreach on alternate issues would distract from gay marriage, abortion, and abstinence education was not voiced during and after the last election, as the Religious Right’s definition of core issues of so-called “values voters” rapidly expanded to encompass most of the Republican Party platform, from the War on Terror to tax cuts and Social Security to a fear of “socialized medicine.”
So it is that the religious-right activists most closely aligned with partisan campaigns have made discrediting the National Association of Evangelicals a priority. One more example comes from Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a group founded in the early 1980s to counter criticism of Reagan Administration policies in Central America by the National Council of Churches and to create an ideological “renewal” in mainline protestant churches by painting the NCC as Communist sympathizers. Tooley invokes the IRD’s defining campaign against the National Council of Churches in describing the National Association of Evangelicals:
Curiously, NAE is now following the historical path that led to the NCC’s demise. Rather than attempting to represent the consensus opinions of its constituency, the NAE, like the NCC for many decades, is speaking “prophetically” to its people. Rank and file evangelicals remain overwhelmingly conservative on almost every issue. But some evangelical elites, always embarrassed by their association in the public imagination with the Religious Right, are psychologically preoccupied with adopting liberal stances, if only to show their independence.
So unsurprisingly, the NAE board, while unwilling to challenge [NAE’s Richard] Cizik, also signed off on a resolution about “torture,” by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The statement could just as easily have come from the National Council of Churches, and was crafted by a special committee dominated by activists and academics from the evangelical left. …
For centuries, evangelicals in America have endured charlatan preachers, apocalyptic warnings, and dubious social reformers. … Somehow, no doubt with divine forbearance, American evangelicals have survived the hysteria of passing causes, by remaining focused on the true Word. They hopefully will do so again.
In another commentary wondering the fate of the NAE “After Haggard” (Ted Haggard, the NAE president who stepped down last year amid drug and sex allegations), IRD Vice President Alan Wisdom also invokes NCC, tacitly threatening to carry on the same battle against NAE:
As the NAE decides on its future leadership, it will have to answer: Does it wish to go further down the same road after the NCC? Or can it reclaim a distinctly evangelical identity that reflects the priorities of the member denominations and the larger evangelical community? Will the NAE board set the direction, and will the staff be accountable to the board? In the end, will the NAE be about more than politics?
So, while a few religious-right activists, such as former Family Research Council President Ken Connor, see tackling issues beyond abortion and gay marriage as making their voices more credible, it seems that venturing past the confines of the GOP platform – to address climate, torture, or genocide, for example – is an apostasy that will consign a group like NAE to the “liberal” label and political enmity from most on the Right.