Evangelicalism is political, but not a political movement

How many political issues do American evangelicals care about? Apparently, just two: abortion and same-sex marriage. At least that is the impression you’d get if you read about evangelicals in the mainstream press.

Earlier today, CNN updated their “Fast Facts” page on former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Aside from general biographical information and a timeline of his career, the page includes only three “Other Facts,” including this one:

Evangelical Christian who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.

Australia’s Herald Sun describes another Minnesota politician, Michele Bachmann, in similar terms:

The former tax lawyer staked out positions against big government, with calls for slashing taxes and debt, while touting her credentials as a Christian evangelical opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Abortion and same-sex marriage. And that’s that.

With the media constantly connecting evangelicalism with these issues it’s no surprise that many people believe these are the only two moral, cultural and political issues that matter to evangelical Christians. As important as these issues are, though, they are just two of a multitude of concerns that comprise the public agenda of American evangelicals.

Evangelicalism is religious movement that span across a broad range, from left to right, across the political spectrum. There is no singular “evangelical perspective” on any political issue. And on doctrinal matters? Even that question will cause fierce debates.

Yet for many journalists, politics is the metanarrative that frames all others belief structures. Since I can’t convince them to stop treating religion as a subset of politics, I thought it might be useful to at least help them broaden their perspective by pointing out how evangelicals tend to faith prioritizes and influences political views. I’ve been an evangelical my entire life and a close observer and participant of evangelical trends — particularly in the media and politics — for the past fifteen years. But you don’t need to be an insider to recognize the main concerns of the evangelical community — especially evangelical leaders — tends to revolve around six key principles.

These six principles, of course, do not comprise an exhaustive list. While I incorporated many of the themes from the National Association of Evangelicals’ paper on civic engagement, the list remains rather subjective and based on my own experience. Still, while it won’t provide a definitive answer to the question of what American evangelicals care about, I believe it’ll show that the political concerns are more broad-based than is often realized. The six principles are:

Principle: The protection of religious freedom — Evangelicals in America believe the joint freedoms of religion and conscience constitute the First Liberty and are deserving of protection both in our own country and abroad.

Issues: Defense of First Amendment protections, expansion of religious freedoms abroad

Principle: The nurturing of family life and the protection of children — While the institutions of marriage and church bear the primary responsibility for fulfilling this duty, evangelicals generally believe the government should promote laws and policies that strengthen the well being of families.

Issues: Promotion of policies on marriage and divorce law, education, tuition vouchers, drug policies, abstinence promotion, fair labor practices, anti-discrimination legislation, protections against spouse and child abuse, affordable health care, reducing crime

Principle: Protecting the sanctity of human life — Because all humans are created in God’s image, evangelicals believe that all people have an inherent and inalienable dignity. They believe it is at the times when life is most vulnerable, particularly in the early stages of development and at the period near death, that life is most in need of protection. Evangelicals believe in promoting policies that recognize the dignity of all humans without regard to such relativistic criteria as mental capacities or quality of life.

Issues: Abortion, euthanasia, embryo destructive research, capital punishment, cloning, unethical human experimentation.

Principle: Seeking justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable — Evangelicals believe in the promotion of both a fair legal system that does not favor either the rich or poor and in a fair economic system that does not tolerate perpetual poverty. This principle also includes the protection of the vulnerable members of society, including the poor, children, the elderly, the disabled, refugees, minorities, the persecuted, and the imprisoned.

Issues: Poverty reduction both in America and abroad, anti-pornography legislation, adoption, immigration reform, stemming the AIDS pandemic, ending slavery and sexual trafficking, stopping prison rape.

Principle: Seeking peace and restraining violence — Although evangelicals prefer that governments pursue nonviolent paths to restoring peace, most are not pacifists and recognize that military force can be a legitimate means of restraining evil. While there is no consensus on how this principle should be implemented, they are in general agreement that the principles of just war must guide a government’s policies.

Issues: Defending against terrorism, ending genocide, weapons proliferation, defending human rights against tyrannical regimes.

Principle: The protection of God’s creation — Evangelicals believe that stewardship of the earth is a responsibility delegated to human by God. Because the earth is a shared resource, the government has a particularly important role in implementing policies that protect the environment.

Issues: Promoting recycling, reduction of pollution, protecting animals from cruelty, conservation of resources, proper care for wildlife and their habitats.

Watch closely and you’ll see that when an evangelical leader talks about a political issue it will be derived from and framed by these six principles. There are exceptions, of course, but issues that do not fall under these principles are typically peripheral to the broader evangelical base. Of course while there is a general consensus about the six principles (which is shared with Christians of other traditions), there is a diverse range of views about how they should be implemented.

Knowing these principles can help journalists in at least two ways. The first is by preventing them from appearing to be completely out-of-touch with American evangelicals. For instance, no one who has paid attention to the movement should be surprised that evangelicals would have views on immigration reform that don’t fit neatly into the Democrat-Republican paradigm.

The second is that journalists can instantly make their articles more nuanced and balanced by acknowledging that while evangelicals may agree on the importance of an issues, they have a range of policy preferences and disagreements about implementation. On almost any issue there will be at least 15-20% of the evangelical base who disagrees with a consensus policy view. Simply finding and quoting these alternative views will improve reporting on evangelical political views.

But keep in mind: evangelicalism is religious movement, not a political one. We don’t just pop up during election years at the Iowa Caucuses. We’re here all the time, just waiting for the media to report on issues that we care about — issues that have nothing to do with politics.

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  • wlinden

    “Morris says the Lepchas are obsessed with sex. (The Lepchas say Morris is obsessed with sex.)” — John Sack, REPORT FROM PRACTICALLY NOWHERE.

  • George Conger

    How should CNN then have written a fast fact on Pawlenty that melds his religious and political views — is he a two issue politician or has he taken a public stance on law/order, education etc?

  • wmrharris

    This would be more persuasive were it not for the critiques that pop up when evangelicals take stances at a distance from perceived politically conservative orthodoxies. Questions regarding the Environment (Creation) and Immigration both come to mind in this regard. What probably hinders Evangelicals the most is their willingness to maintain party lines rather than stand apart in an attitude of critique (the party line behavior was interestingly developed in Dylan Matthews Wonkblog post on partisanship). While seeking to be prophetic towards the broad secular society, the evangelical has often been more muted when it comes to the stances of its friends.

    • Juan Carlos Barrientos

      “evangelicals generally believe the government should promote laws and policies that strengthen the well being of families.”

      just think what would happen if we try to get some version of maternity leave? I have zero problem to basically put new mothers (their option) on some welfare for a year or so in order for them to be and bond with their child. Just think how many tea party people would call this the death of freedom.

      want to be taken seriously? speak the gospel at times and don’t just follow party lines or talking points. and if necessary, go with the dems on some issues and don’t think twice about it.


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