Column: Testing the faith of evangelicals

By Brian Pierce

In the days following the 2004 election, my liberal friends and I – and there’s really no better way to put this – became afraid of our own country. The brilliance of Karl Rove’s strategy to inflame the socially conservative base of the Republican Party was being celebrated, and it appeared to be for good reason: several states, including Ohio, passed bans on same-sex marriage; and on exit polls, “moral values,” a term conventional wisdom led us to believe was code for being against abortion and gay marriage, played a large role in voters’ minds.

Two years later, some of those fears my friends and I held have been allayed, as the American electorate – enough of it, at least – appears to have come to its senses. Even the GOP’s base appears not to be as close-minded (and, well, just plain stupid) as we on the left like to caricature them: one-third of white evangelicals voted Democratic this past election, issues like abortion and gay rights barely factored into most campaigns and, for the first time ever, a state initiative banning same-sex marriage was defeated, in Arizona.

We got another good sign this past week when Democratic Senator Barack Obama was invited to speak at Saddleback Church, an evangelical “mega-church” run by Rick Warren, pastor and best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” The church was hosting a World AIDS Day event on Friday and had Obama speak on the scourge of AIDS around the world and the need for all of us to come together to confront it.

“[We] can’t ignore the fact that abstinence and fidelity, while ideal, may not always be the reality,” Obama said to the audience, calling for providing condoms to those at risk for AIDS. “I don’t accept the notion that those who make mistakes in their lives should be given an effective death sentence.”

It’s an unpopular stance to take before such a crowd, and while Obama deserves credit for the risk, the crowd also deserves credit: they applauded Obama’s words.

But the threat I felt so acutely in November of 2004 remains, even if it has been distracted and diluted. While some evangelicals happily welcomed Obama and celebrated his support, others were not so hospitable.

Rob Schenck, for example, president of the National Clergy Council, wrote an e-mail to reporters criticizing Warren for the invitation because Obama’s pro-choice stance on abortion is “the antithesis of biblical ethics and morality, not to mention supreme American values.”

Phyllis Schlafly and seventeen other prominent Christian leaders wrote an open letter saying, “You cannot fight one evil while justifying another . No, Mr. Warren, Mr. Obama, we will never work with those who support the murder of babies in the womb.”

And radio host and blogger Kevin McCullough asks in a column, “Why would Warren marry the moral equivalency of his pulpit . to the inhumane, sick, and sinister evil that Obama has worked for as a legislator?”

While it’s pretty clear these folks aren’t exactly asking themselves what Jesus would do, it’s less clear exactly how important they are. After all, Obama’s invitation was not revoked over their objections, and even conservative Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas said the need to combat AIDS is more important than political gamesmanship.

But ultimately the importance of those in the camp of Schenck, Shlafly, and McCullough will be determined by evangelicals themselves and, separately, the religious right. They remain a vitally important constituency and can decide elections, and policymakers will listen to them.

Evangelicals, then, are confronting a great test. Will they follow those on the right who thinly veil their partisan politics in religious garb, or will they express a willingness to embrace those, like Obama, who may have capital D’s after their names but clearly share their faith and desire to do God’s work as best as they know how?

How evangelicals meet that test will determine whether I will live in fear of, or hope for, the future. For the moment, I cautiously choose hope.