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


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Warren's push is part of a larger vision he has been unfolding over the last few months. In April, during Saddleback's 25th anniversary celebration, he announced he would lead thousands of churches around the world in eradicating five "giant problems" that oppress billions of people: 1) Global poverty. 2) Diseases, such as AIDS, that affect billions of people. 3) Illiteracy -- half the world is illiterate. 4) Spiritual emptiness -- billions of people don't know their purpose in life. 5) Self-centered leadership.

Saddleback's network of 2,600 small groups is now in the process of adopting villages in the small country of Rwanda, where a million people were killed in a 100-day genocide in 1994. Warren chose Rwanda after a recent visit there, and he hosted the president of Rwanda at the Saddleback anniversary.

Warren isn't the only evangelical leader outside the short-list of the Religious Left to take on poverty-the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) adopted a document in October 2004 that urged evangelicals to embrace an agenda that is broader than-but doesn't exclude-the social morality-focused "culture wars."

It might appear that Warren's focus on global poverty and the NAE's articulation of a broad evangelical agenda including attention to both poverty and environmental issues they term "creation care" puts them at odds with prominent evangelical leaders like Dr. James Dobson, whose organization Focus on the Family prioritizes family and morality issues, chiefly abortion and gay marriage. But in an interview with Beliefnet, the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the Washington, DC-based NAE, says that the situation facing evangelicals isn't either-or.

"We have both the intellectual and the human capital to engage in all the issues all the time in a full-scale assault against the apathy, post-modernism, and nihilism that characterizes our age," Cizik said.

But at a June 8 meeting of the Consultation for Interfaith Education (CIE) in New York City, Cizik had stronger words to describe the fault lines within the evangelical community over combating what he calls the "structural evil" of global economic inequality. While Cizik's organization has made a commitment to the global anti-poverty effort being undertaken by the CIE, other evangelical groups, he said, want to hew exclusively to a domestic, "family issues" public agenda, which means abortion and gay marriage. Cizik further cited James Dobson as a leader of "isolationist" evangelicals whose refusal to "extend support of the community to addressing poverty and the environment" he referred to as "the Empire strikes back."

In his Beliefnet interview, however, Cizik was more conciliatory, saying that his organization and groups like Dobson's can work simultaneous toward their respective and shared goals.

"Jim Dobson's concerns are well-founded," Cizik said, "Dobson's culture war issues are not irrelevant. I believe we can mobilize our constituencies, which overlap, in a way that doesn't spread us too thin."

Observers say that while the global poverty issue is fairly universally accepted as a welcome addition to the evangelical agenda, the new broadening trend isn't without controversy.

Global warming in particular has been contentious, pitting those who, like Cizik, believe the issue of "creation care" is inextricably linked to fighting global poverty against those who feel that environmental concerns are overly inflated.

Warren's focus on global poverty, meanwhile, is crucially timed, says Cizik. With the G-8 nations (a summit meeting of the leaders of eight major industrial nations) scheduled to meet in July, he said, now is the time to act and influence those in a position to work to alleviate poverty. "We won't have the spotlight next year," Cizik said.

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