And there are some signs that new coalitions are emerging — in some cases, trying to turn the spotlight on particular issues or even bringing evangelicals and progressives together to work on issues of common concern.
In recent weeks, the places in which public policy are debated have been lit up with efforts to bring attention to issues ranging from peace in Gaza to torture to hunger in the United States in these dark economic times.
• In January, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to Obama and members of Congress, outlining “an agenda for dialogue and action,” on issues ranging from universal health care to religious persecution in Iraq.
• Christian Churches Together in the USA, an ecumenical alliance of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal churches, is focusing its energies between Thanksgiving 2008 and Easter 2009 on the problem of domestic poverty.
• Activists working against torture have launched a “100 days campaign” to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and end torture in which the U.S. military is involved.
So is this a time of new social activism for faith-based groups?
Some think it may be.
As religious groups try to influence the agenda of the new administration, there’s evidence of an “amazing broadening” of the faith-based coalitions working on public policy concerns, said Andrew Kang Bartlett, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s associate for national hunger concerns.
Bartlett said he sees “both a broadening of the types of groups that are coming together, and just an unprecedented enthusiasm and commitment to working together collaboratively. It’s been amazing.”
Starting with efforts to influence Congress on a farm bill, and now with a worldwide food crisis and the United States in an economic freefall, people are pulling together to work for change, Bartlett said. On issues involving farm policy and hunger issues, those alliances now include everyone from those directly involved in food banks to family farmers to the Pesticide Action Network.
“It’s really pulling people together,” Bartlett said. “That in itself is cause for hope.”
Here’s another example of what some see as a broadening of alliances. Some evangelical and progressive Christians, working together through a nonprofit think tank called Third Way, have announced a new “Come Let us Reason Together Governing Agenda.” Through that, they are working to advance specific policy changes on particular issues on which they can agree even while acknowledging that they continue to disagree on key aspects of hot-button issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
The four key issues the Third Way advocates say they will work together on are: reducing abortions; protecting the rights of gay and lesbians to earn a living without employment discrimination, while allowing exemptions for faith-based employers; renouncing torture; and supporting comprehensive immigration reform.
As the Obama administration comes into power, “I believe we are at a watershed moment in this country’s history,” said Joel C. Hunter, a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals and senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, a megachurch based near Orlando. “I don’t think that’s hyperbole.”
By working together to solve mutual problems, “each side can advance a piece of its agenda together,” Hunter said, speaking during a conference-call news conference.
This Third Way effort started about two years ago. Some involved say they hope that similar efforts can help reduce partisan rancor and open the way for creative cooperation on some of the nation’s most divisive issues.
Rachel Laser, director of the culture program at Third Way, said she is pro-choice but also shares the goal of reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. In two years of working with evangelicals, “we discovered many deep values that we share,” such as respect for human dignity, optimism, and pragmatism, Laser said.
The culture wars have been characterized by “vilifying those who differ from us on provocative issues and treating them as traitors and threats,” Hunter said. “I believe we can end those culture wars … without compromising our basic core values.”
Regarding abortion, for example, Hunter said, “I am so committed to this stance that life in the womb is sacred to God” that he can’t wait until abortion is made totally illegal in the U.S. In the meantime, he’ll work to reduce the number of abortions performed “person by person,” in part through advocating sex education that is abstinence-based but also encourages access to contraception to reduce unwanted pregnancies.
Wait and see
Of course, there’s no single consensus about the change in administrations, or about the power shifts in Congress. Some are thrilled, other deeply worried.
Among some progressive Christian groups, “there is absolutely this sense of ‘let’s go for it now,’ incredible enthusiasm,” said Christian Iosso, coordinator of the PC(USA)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. That comes from “this sense that we’re going to get some things done that we haven’t been able to do” under the Bush administration, and that the Obama administration is willing to listen to the voices of people of faith from a variety of religious traditions.
That comes, however, at a time of huge economic uncertainty. Mainline denominations such as the PC(USA), which in past decades had considerable influence in the halls of power, are themselves shrinking and retrenching. The PC(USA), for example, is re-evaluating the role of its Washington office and has fewer members and resources with which to work.
Richard Cizik, the long-time vice-president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, lost his job late in 2008 after making comments on the public radio show Fresh Air that his opposition to same-sex marriage was shifting. Cizik had pushed evangelicals to focus more on global warming and other environmental issues and had become, in his own right, something of a controversial figure. With a generational change in leadership evident among evangelical leaders, and with Cizik’s departure, many are watching closely to see which way leaders of the powerful religious right will push and what tone they will take.
And then there are questions of what Obama’s track record as president will turn out to be, now that the campaign is over and the governing has begun.
Some will be watching carefully, for example, for the details of the bailout package and its impact on the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, or to see what Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress can achieve with immigration reform.
“I think it’s a very serious time for the country, both domestically and internationally,” said Alan Wisdom, vice-president for research and programs at the Institute on Religion and Democracy and who is also director of Presbyterian Action.
While he and others are praying for Obama and his administration, “what concerns me is there are so many hopes attached to President Obama and in some cases almost messianic hopes have been attached to him,” Wisdom said.
“This was an election. But I hope that they (Obama supporters) temper their expectations with a good dose of Christian realism about the fact that President Obama, like any president, is only going to be able to tackle a certain number of things at a time. … And there will be things done with good intentions that will have unexpected negative effects.”
And many, both progressives and evangelicals, while they may be working hard to gain the new administration’s ear, say it’s too soon to say where the Obama administration will come down on issues they are following.
“Everybody’s got this kind of wait-and-see approach,” said Rick Ufford-Chase, a former General Assembly moderator and director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. So far, among advocacy groups, “we’re not seeing the kind of activism that I would like to see,” Ufford-Chase said. And the challenges for the new administration are significant.
“I think Iraq and Gaza are two really good examples of places where it’s going to be very difficult for the Obama administration to do what they want to in terms of a post-partisan approach to politics, and still make good on the commitments they’ve made,” Ufford-Chase said.
In trying to withdraw from Iraq, “the order is fairly huge,” he said. “And the expectations are very, very high.”
Still, some see cause for optimism.
“There are rare opportunities in each administration when the wind shifts. ?… We are standing at such a moment,” Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said during the Third Way news conference.
“As Hispanic Christians, we stand committed to the message of the cross,” Rodriguez said. “However, that cross is both vertical and horizontal,” stressing both righteousness and justice. Rodriguez sees an opportunity now at that intersection of the cross, “where Billy Graham meets Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the master’s table.”