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Progressive evangelicals succeeding US religious right

  • 31 March 2008

The religious right is losing ground in the US. But this phenomenon could be framed another way: some of its members are moving with some speed to the political left.

Progressives tend to range, according to The Washington Post, between 11 to 36 per cent of the evangelical spectrum. But the evangelical left is gradually chipping away at the conservative leviathan, a process that began after George Bush's re-election in 2004.

Their success comes along with the erosion of the Reagan consensus which in the 1980s witnessed a curious alignment of forces: fierce individualists shared the political ground with keen evangelicals and old-school conservatives. Since the 1980s, they became formidable, a force that could not be ignored. But, while a candidate like John McCain can't ignore the evangelical vote (historically it is they, more than registered Democrats, who march out on election days), their uniformity is no longer apparent.

Evangelical authors and activists such as Brian D. McLaren of Lauren, founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in upper Montgomery County, preach with a set of revised priorities. Climate change, still unmentionable — and plausibly deniable — in many parts of the conservative movement, figures prominently. Efforts at achieving social justice are underlined with vigour. A work like The Secret Message of Jesus, released in 2006, pushes for earthly labours that refocus the religious message to the just and good life.

An entry on the progressive website Pomomusings jots down McLaren's main views. The message of the 'Kingdom of God' is not, as he puts it, 'life in heaven after you die', but an active, living project Christians must undertake on earth. For Jesus, it was 'good news for the poor'; for McLaren, the Kingdom of God suggests a 'social dimension', one that confronts believers' assumptions 'about peace, war, prosperity, poverty, privilege, responsibility, religion, and God'.

The world of the afterlife diminishes in the rhetoric, as does that of a righteous, anti-welfare, nuke-loving Christ. McLaren cringes at the staple portrayal of Jesus among conservative evangelicals as a 'pro-war, anti-poor, anti-homosexual, anti-environment, pro-nuclear weapons authority figure draped in an American flag'. While his theological base has raised eyebrows among some theologians, McLaren's politics have kept him afloat. Consuming, inclusive love, rather than militant, repellent hate, drives his activism.

There are others who are hewing away at the religious assumptions of the evangelical right, suggesting its imminent demise. Detroit-raised Rev. Jim Wallis, who