Last week, a letter from James Dobson and friends to the board of the National Association of Evangelicals challenged NAE vice president Rich Cizik’s efforts on global warming as “dividing and demoralizing,” and shifting “the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time.”
In response, I invited Dobson to a debate on the question, “What are the great moral issues of our time for evangelical Christians?” and suggested that a major evangelical Christian university should host it.
On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times reported on the debate invitation, and this response: “A Focus on the Family vice president, Tom Minnery, said he would be happy to take up that debate. Dobson himself, Minnery said, is busy writing a book on child rearing.”
I’m also busy writing a book, but I suggest that when we’re both finished, we hold that debate. My personal invitation to James Dobson still stands. And since he was the primary driving force behind the crucial letter, the conversation should be with him. But let’s change the tone of this from “a debate” to “a conversation.” This is, in fact, the big conversation going on among evangelicals (and Catholics, too) across the nation and around the world.
In his letter, Dobson named the “great moral issues” as “the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.” I said in my last blog that I believe the sanctity of life, the integrity and health of marriages, and the teaching of sexual morality to our children are, indeed, among the “great moral issues of our time. But I believe they are not the only great moral issues.” As many writers have been saying in this blog, the enormous challenges of global poverty, climate change, pandemics that wipe out generations and continents, the trafficking of human beings made in God’s image, and the grotesque violations of human rights, even to the point of genocide, are also among the great moral issues that people of faith must be – and already are – addressing.
Just in the last few days, we have already received invitations from six major Christian universities eager to host this conversation between James Dobson and me. But this is bigger than just two people: It’s the conversation we need to have on every Christian campus, in every church, and in public forums around the nation, especially as we approach another election season. So let’s do that together.
The board meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals also ended Saturday, and in the words of their own press release: NAE Leaders Advance Broad Agenda with Landmark Document on Human Rights and Torture. The release begins by noting:
The board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals advanced a broad public agenda at its annual meeting this week, endorsing a landmark document on human rights and torture, and reaffirming its “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Public Engagement,” first adopted in 2003.
Specifically, the board noted it
…reaffirmed its support for the landmark “For the Health of the Nation” document unanimously adopted in 2003, commending its “principles of Christian political engagement to our entire community for action.”
These principles include: (1) We work to protect religious freedom and liberty of conscience; (2) We work to nurture family life and protect children; (3) We work to protect the sanctity of human life and to safeguard its nature; (4) We seek justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable; (5) We work to protect human rights; (6) We seek peace and work to restrain violence; (7) We labor to protect God’s creation.”
The only mention of Rich Cizik, whom the Dobson letter had singled out and called upon the NAE to fire, came with these words in the official NAE press release:
Speaking at the annual board banquet, Rev. Richard Cizik, NAE vice president for governmental affairs, quoted evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry in his wake up call to evangelicals sixty years ago: ‘The cries of suffering humanity today are many. No evangelicalism which ignores the totality of man’s condition dares respond in the name of Christianity.’
The NAE statement went on to say:
Speaking of a new generation of evangelicals that has responded to those cries, Cizik said: ‘We root our activism in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross and are giving it a proper temporal focus by emphasizing all of the principles that are found in the Bible. We come together in a positive way as a family bonded by the love of Christ, not as fractious relatives. We desire to be people known for our passionate commitment to justice and improving the world, and eager to reach across all barriers with love, civility, and care for our fellow human beings.’
I knew Carl F. H. Henry, during my seminary years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and through many conversations together during our early years of Sojourners. His biblical theology, social conscience, and political balance provided a younger generation with crucial moral guidance. We miss his voice today.
But the NAE Board, and its president Leith Anderson, know that a new generation of evangelicals wants that same sound theology and good balance, and believe that Christian moral concerns (and God’s concerns) go beyond only a few issues. Recognizing how their broader agenda is resonating with evangelicals around the world, the NAE announced that at its fall board meeting in Washington, D.C., October 11-12, “the association will host an ‘International Congress on Evangelical Public Engagement,’ drawing prestigious leaders from around the world to meet with American leadership around the principles of the Association’s ‘For the Health of the Nation’ document.” It seems the broader evangelical social agenda has solid support and is moving forward.
So, let’s have the big debate; and make it into the kind of deep and necessary conversation among the people of God that it needs to be. And to Jim Dobson I say, let’s finish our books (as a Dad with two young boys I look forward to reading yours on child rearing!), and then agree to a public conversation at the right place and the right time. I look forward to that.