Evangelicals Embrace New Global Priorities

Some top leaders want to broaden the focus from culture-war 'family issues' to helping the world's poor.

BY: Holly Lebowitz Rossi

 
Usually when the words "evangelical" and "poverty" appear in the same sentence, the minister at the helm is Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, or Tony Campolo. And when Rick Warren is written and talked about, it's almost never in the context of any political issue.

But Warren, who is the pastor of Saddleback Church, a megachurch in Lake Forest, California and the author of the blockbuster book "The Purpose-Driven Life," is diving into the issue of Christian responsibility to combat global poverty.

The move took the form of an open letter campaign to President Bush, launched June 3 by Warren together with heavyweights Billy Graham and British evangelical John Stott and sent to over 150,000 evangelicals nationwide.

"I deeply believe that if we as evangelicals remain silent and do not speak up in defense of the poor, we lose our credibility and our right to witness about God's love for the world," Warren wrote in his appeal for participants in the campaign.

A top evangelical leader, Warren's support lends powerful weight to the cause of ending global poverty. Barna polls have found that Warren comes in near the top of the list when pastors are asked who they feel is the most influential evangelical leader. He was listed first in the "Time" magazine list of the 25 most influential evangelicals, along with other more traditionally political evangelical leaders such as NAE president Ted Haggard and Southern Baptist Richard Land.

Following its publication in 2002, "The Purpose Driven Life" went on to become the best selling book for 2003 and 2004, and the best-selling non-fiction hardback in history, with sales of more than 22 million copies. Warren and his wife, Kay, have set up three foundations through which to distribute 90 percent of the proceeds from the book back into global ministry, including assistance to individuals in developing countries who have been infected and affected by AIDS.

Warren stressed that his action did not signal a new, political phase of his career, but rather was an urgent call to practice his Christian faith. "I've never been involved in partisan politics--and don't intend to do so now--but global poverty is an issue that rises far above mere politics," he wrote. "It is a moral issue . a compassion issue . and because Jesus commanded us to help the poor, it is an obedience issue!"

More moderate and liberal religious leaders have long urged evangelical Christians-who claim their ranks comprise 40-50 percent of the Republican Party-to give more attention to poverty issues. Now, it appears, those appeals have hit home.

"Many leaders of the evangelical community have been stung by the criticism that's been directed at them from outside the evangelical community," including Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

As for criticisms from among their own ranks--chiefly Wallis, Sider, and Campolo--Green says, "Maybe that stung a little bit more."

Warren's letter, and his increasingly outspoken endorsement of a global agenda, has some thinking that a natural alliance is emerging between Warren and his socially conservative colleagues and liberal anti-poverty figures like U2 rock star Bono. But in order for such an alliance to fully materialize, says commentator David Brooks, conservative Christians might have to take a break from the abortion- and gay marriage-centered "culture wars."

"We can have a culture war in this country, or we can have a war on poverty, but we can't have both," wrote Brooks in a May 26 New York Times column.

It's unclear what this line in the sand might mean for Warren's relationship with both his evangelical compatriots and the Bush administration.

But the boundaries between groups may be becoming somewhat more permeable, as evidenced by Pat Robertson's appearance alongside Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres, and P. Diddy in a recent public service announcement for The ONE Campaign to end poverty.

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