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Evangelical stumps for wider agenda in Crescent City

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Writer and social activist the Rev. Jim Wallis arrived in New Orleans recently bearing what he called “good news” and “better news.” The “good,” in his view: “The dominance of the religious right over our politics is finally finished.” The “better”: Substantial numbers of evangelical voters are rapidly broadening […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Writer and social activist the Rev. Jim Wallis arrived in New Orleans recently bearing what he called “good news” and “better news.”

The “good,” in his view: “The dominance of the religious right over our politics is finally finished.”

The “better”: Substantial numbers of evangelical voters are rapidly broadening their concerns beyond the narrow two-issue agenda of abortion and gay rights. Now, he said, their faith prompts them to demand political action on a wider agenda topped by new issues: poverty at home and abroad, global warming, health care, genocide and similar social justice issues.

That diagnosis brought applause from a sympathetic audience at Trinity Episcopal Church, where Wallis concluded a national book tour promoting “The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America.”

Wallis, the progressive evangelical founder of Washington, D.C.-based Sojourners/Call to Renewal, has been outside the conservative agendas of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and other lions of the religious right for more than 20 years.

Their high-water mark may have come in 2004, when the strong backing of evangelicals helped secure a second term for President Bush _ leading dismayed Democrats to debate why they could not speak persuasively to evangelicals, who constitute a quarter of the electorate.

But at Trinity, and in an earlier interview, Wallis argued that mounting evidence indicates that white evangelicals are no longer an attached wing of the GOP _ that substantial numbers are backing away and behaving more like independents, open to other appeals.

He is not alone. For almost a year, fresh polling evidence has depicted a weakening bond between the Republican Party and white evangelicals. And a raft of books, among them Amy Sullivan’s “The Party Faithful,” and E.J. Dionne’s “Souled Out,” cover much of the same ground.

Wallis traces several reasons for evangelicals’ disappointment with the GOP.

Among them, he says:

_ The “political project of the religious right has failed.” Wallis contends that the Republican Party seduced conservative evangelical figures by taking “legitimate concerns the culture had and used them … to leverage votes for Republican candidates.” Thirty years have passed with Republicans and those religious leaders enjoying a taste of power, but nothing in the culture has changed for troubled social conservatives.

_ “The failure of the Bush administration,” especially its “mismanagement” of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, has soured some evangelicals on the party they once identified with.

_ A new generation of evangelicals, including tens of thousands working in New Orleans and being transformed by their experiences, are re-priortizing the agenda handed them by their parents. “The truth is that a new generation of evangelicals cares more about the 30,000 children globally who die every day of stupid poverty and totally preventable disease, than gay marriage in Ohio,” Wallis said.

Yet if significant numbers of evangelicals are backing away from the GOP, Wallis said it does not follow that a new religious left is under construction. What he said he hopes is emerging “isn’t a religious left. I call it a moral center. Don’t go left; don’t go right; go deeper.”

Wallis said the newly enlarged gospel agenda embraces much of the old order.

But it is not fully inclusive of the earlier order.

While he describes himself as a “Cardinal Bernardin-seamless-garment-consistent-ethic-of-life Protestant,” he does not support “criminalizing a difficult and desperate choice” _ abortion. Nor does he preach the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Instead, he hopes to see passage of the Abortion Reduction Act, a bill setting out a range of services to support single pregnant women and adoption services. Its goal: to cut down the number of abortions every year.

Wallis said he has taken heat for this from the Democratic left for “selling out” on abortion. He said he expects to attend the Democratic National Convention in Denver, hoping to make abortion reduction a major Democratic plank.

“If that happens, millions of votes turn around,” he said. Even so, he said: “if Hillary or Barack wins, I don’t go inside. I step back.”

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

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File photos of Jim Wallis and his new book are available via https://religionnews.com.