God's Politics

Jim WallisI was at Bethel University in the Twin Cities on Tuesday. Known as a conservative evangelical school in Minnesota, and in the heartland of the American mid-west, Bethel has been long regarded as a safe and secure place for conservative Republican politics – and even as fertile ground for recruiting by the Religious Right. And in the last two elections, most Bethel students certainly would have voted for George W. Bush.

But the wind is changing at Bethel, and among a new generation of evangelical students across the country. Yesterday was a dramatic demonstration of that change, one that will be most significant for both faith and politics in America.

I started my day at Bethel by speaking in chapel and asking a new generation to “clear up the confusion” in this nation about what it means to follow Jesus. I asked them if they wanted to be true evangelicals, defined by the root meaning of the word “evangel,” which literally means “good news.” The word was first used by Jesus in his opening statement in Nazareth, recorded in Luke chapter 4, where he defined his own mission by saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news (“the evangel”) to the poor…” I told the young evangelical audience that any gospel that wasn’t good news to the poor simply wasn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It was clear from the response in chapel that a new generation of evangelical Christians want to be, like Jesus, good news to the poor. And because of that their agenda is now much broader and deeper than just the two things the Religious Right continues to talk about as the only “moral values” issues – abortion and gay marriage. The Bethel students, like me, still believe that the sanctity of life and healthy family values are indeed important issues. In fact, they are too important to be turned into political wedge issues to get votes at election time. We need a deeper moral discussion of both those questions than we find occurring in the political arena today, but there are clearly no longer just two moral values issues for this evangelical generation. They care deeply about poverty, global warming, sex trafficking, human rights, genocide in Darfur, and the ethics of war in Iraq. And they are eager for an agenda that will call forth their best gifts, energies, and the commitment of their lives.

This generation won’t accept the narrowing of Scripture to only two hot-button social issues and have found those 2,000 verses in the Bible that speak of God’s concern for the poor and vulnerable. For them, environmental concern is “creation care.” And they want a “consistent ethic of life” that addresses all the places where human life and dignity is threatened—not just one.

That doesn’t mean that their votes, which conservative Republicans have taken for granted, will now automatically go to liberal Democrats. Instead, they are eager to challenge the selective moralities of both left and right, and respond to a moral agenda for politics that will hold both sides accountable. In the future, any candidate (from either party) that speaks the moral language of politics and lifts up the issues of social justice that the Bible talks so much about could attract the attention of this new generation.

The chapel was packed; every seat in the house was taken. I told them that faith is for the “big stuff,” that politics was failing to solve our deepest crises, and that it was a time for faith-inspired movements to change both politics and history as we have done many times before, invoking the abolition of slavery campaign and the civil rights movement, among others. When the students rose to their feet at the end it didn’t just feel like a standing ovation, but rather an altar call, with students standing to say that they want their faith and their lives to make a difference in our world.

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