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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Evangelical Purge Denied

Yesterday Kevin Drum drew attention to a March 1 letter sent by a collection of Christian Right poohbahs to the chairman of the board of the National Association of Evangelicals calling for a repudiation and/or firing of NAE governmental affairs director Richard Cizik because of his high-profile advocacy of action on global warming. Signed by such political luminaries as James Dobston, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and Paul Weyrich, the letter ostensibly objects to Cizik’s (and the NAE’s) firm position on the science and urgency of global climate change (in an unintentionally hilarious line, the letter says “the issue should be addressed scientifically, and not theologically.”).But as Kevin notes, the real subtext is that Cizik and NAE are threatening the marriage of convenience between conservative evangelicals and the Republican Party, to which Dobson and company owe much of their influence.Kevin also pulls a paragraph from the letter that I find fascinating for a slightly different reason than he does:

Finally, Cizik’s disturbing views seem to be contributing to growing confusion about the very term, “evangelical.” As a recent USA Today article notes: “Evangelical was the label of choice of Christians with conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality. Now the word may be losing its moorings, sliding towards the same linguistic demise that “fundamentalist” met decades ago because it has been misunderstood, misappropriated and maligned.

In other words, these Christian Right leaders are accusing Cizik of messing with their brand (or more specifically, with their claim to be able to deliver “evangelicals” to the GOP for its entire agenda). This is a rather audacious complaint, since the identification of the term “evangelical” with “conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality” is of very recent vintage, and remains highly dubious. There’s no universally recognized definition of “evangelical Christians,” though most would suggest it refers to Protestants who stress personal conversion experiences, a responsibility to proselytize, and the ultimate authority of Scripture as opposed to church tradition or speculative theology. That being “evangelical” does not necessarily involve “conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality” is illustrated by the name of the resolutely mainline, 4 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, not to mention the largely evangelical nature of most African-American churches. Moreoever, there is a robust tradition among even very conservative evangelicals to maintain a posture of independence from secular political parties, reflecting their unhappy collective experience with state churches in Europe. So in effect, some of the political counter-trends among evangelicals represent a rejection of a relatively recent coup effort by a Christian Right faction that appears to be losing influence on every front. And today’s Washington Post brings the news that the effort to muzzle or fire Cizik has gone nowhere. The NAE board went out of its way last week to reaffirm a policy statement that included the “creation care” commitment to action on global climate change that so agitated the Christian Right leaders.This conspicuous declaration of independence from Dobson and company has to sting. More and more, it’s clear that the leaders of the Christian Right effort to marry their ministries to the secular agenda of the GOP and the conservative movement truly have traded their birthrights for a mess of pottage.

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