Part three of a dialogue between Jim Wallis and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed on the question: “What should values voters value most?”

Jim WallisYou raise several interesting lines of thought in your response, Ralph. Let me try to address some of them.

My point that the Religious Right only focuses on one or two issues is not a “straw man.” I’ve looked at the promotional material and program for the “Values Voters” conference this weekend in Washington. The major opening plenary session is titled “The Preservation Of Traditional Marriage” and the website promotes a book titled “The Party of Death,” which claims to detail “how left-wing radicals, using abortion as their lever, took over the Democratic Party-and how they have used their power to corrupt our law and politics.”

And I saw several comments here to your post. One said, “I grew up in an evangelical right-wing conservative denomination, and have been a minister in it for the past decade. I have been troubled by my tradition for several years over many things. If conservatives have a huge agenda and are not based on 2 issues, I’ve never seen it.” Another person wrote: “As one who grew up in an independent Baptist church and who has an extended family deeply rooted in the Nazarene church, I can assure you that among such religious conservatives there are only two or three hot button issues: abortion, gay marriage, and school prayer.”

Some of your friends on the Religious Right do have private charitable agendas. But their political agenda is still mostly about two issues. That’s what they talk about, that’s what they mobilize around, and that’s what they use to the partisan advantage of Republicans. I heartily agree that many evangelicals now have a much broader agenda and that is precisely the point.

The Religious Right has now lost control of the evangelical political agenda and here’s why.

One year after the television images of Katrina were seared into our minds, thirty-seven million Americans still live in poverty, left out and left behind. Globally, thirty-thousand children die needlessly every day from hunger and disease. Certainly poverty is a moral value, and it clearly is for a new generation of evangelicals.

Despite official indifference and denial, the future of our fragile environment is in jeopardy as global warming continues unchecked. Caring for the earth that sustains us is also a moral value which young evangelicals now call “creation care.”

Insisting on full humanity and dignity for all people by opposing discrimination and oppression for ethnic or racial reasons, whether intentionally or due to systemic structures, is a moral imperative. Racism, human rights, sex trafficking, and genocide in places like Darfur are all now clearly on the Christian agenda.

Twenty-six hundred Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis are now dead. Daily violence continues to spiral out of control. The cost and consequences of a disastrous war, that many now believe is a distraction from the real fight against terrorism, is a moral issue. And attacking the war’s opponents as appeasers does not answer the hard questions.

But you still don’t see many of the issues above on the political agenda of the Religious Right. In fact, some leaders of the Religious Right have tried to keep issues like the environment and poverty off the evangelical agenda for fear they would distract from same-sex marriage and abortion.

The serious breakdown of both family and community in our society must be addressed. But we need serious solutions, not merely scapegoating others.

And wouldn’t coming together to find common ground in reducing the number of abortions be better than both the left and the right using it as a political litmus test?

The desire for integrity in our government is growing across the political spectrum. Corruption in government – how money and power distort and misguide our political decision-making and even our electoral processes – offends basic values. In a political culture with seemingly never-ending scandals, our values should insist on securing both electoral and lobbying reform, and ending how pork barrel spending and special interests sway policy decisions.

As I travel around the country, I find that the American people are weary of the left/right battle lines but are hungry for a “moral center” in politics, one that the media pundits cannot simply pigeonhole with the worn-out labels of liberal or conservative. We need a new dialogue that goes beyond those categories. I’ll come back to that point in my next post.

You ask about the Democrats on marriage and abortion. When I say that parenting has become a counter-cultural activity in America, all parents nod their heads–both liberal and conservative. But neither party has a genuinely pro-family agenda. The Democrats, as you point out, make a big mistake of not speaking the language of family values while Republicans have only an anti-gay marriage agenda, not a comprehensive family friendly platform that especially takes the needs of America’s working families into account. And abortion is a moral issues that Democrats should address (and are beginning to), but so is a consistent ethic of life (as the Catholics say) which Republicans violate by focusing only on abortion and ignoring so many of the other greatest threats to human life and dignity.

The real problem with Democrats is not their views on specific issues, but their reluctance to speak of their position on issues in moral or religious language. That is now changing ­ Sen. Barack Obama delivered a major speech on faith and politics at our conference this summer, Robert Casey spoke here in Washington last week, and Sen. John Kerry offered his yesterday. The American people want our elected officials make the deep connection between moral values and politics.

It¹s time to build a nation with a new set of moral priorities that advances the common good for all Americans and speaks in the language of values. But the moral agenda must be broader and deeper than the one the Religious Right continually poses. And a new dialogue on moral values could take us beyond the old liberal/conservative political straightjacket and truly move our nation forward. Do you agree Ralph?

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