It is not conservative evangelicals who have the monopoly on morality. In fact, more liberal religious groups, mainline Christians and others, also bring their sense of religious ideals into the public realm.

Brantley Fasaway

Religion permeates American life. Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, political debates about everything from homosexual marriage to abortion and even health care reform are peppered with religious arguments.

To some degree, certain religious affiliations are associated with predictable political views. Evangelical Christians, in particular, have become nearly synonymous with conservative platforms and aligned with the Republican party. There is a growing segment, however, of progressive evangelicals who do not fit the moniker "Religious Right." They interpret the "pro-life" teachings of their faith, for instance, to mean not just opposition to abortion, but also to war, the death penalty and poverty.

These progressive evangelicals have not been nearly as successful as their conservative counterparts in getting their message heard. Assistant Professor of Religion Brantley Gasaway is asking why not.

Progressive evangelicals are not new kids on the block. Rather, Gasaway argues, the movement began to take shape in the 1960s and 70s, galvanized by the civil rights, feminist, and anti-Vietnam War movements. Conservative evangelicals, on the other hand, did not begin to coalesce as a political force until the late 1970s, largely in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, legalized abortion, and gay and lesbian rights. Despite their earlier start, progressive evangelicals have had a more difficult time gaining political traction, Gasaway asserts, because they have been "too politically liberal for Christian conservatives and too religiously conservative for most political liberals." This has placed them on the margin of politics, not fitting well - and not trying to align themselves with - either the Democratic or Republican party.

While "Christian" still tends to precede "right" in political discussions, progressive evangelical groups got an inadvertent boost in the last decade. "Our most recent president, George W. Bush, proved a particularly divisive figure, and so the progressive evangelical groups that I study actually gained new opportunities to get their message out and to provide an alternative," Gasaway says.

President Obama has attempted to reach out to a broad spectrum of evangelicals. He invited best-selling author Rick Warren, well known for speaking out against both poverty and homosexuality, to give the invocation at his inauguration. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners and the most visible progressive evangelical leader, has served as a spiritual adviser to President Obama.

As a teacher, Gasaway challenges his students to think about the role of religion in politics. "It is not conservative evangelicals who have the monopoly on morality. In fact, more liberal religious groups, mainline Christians and others, also bring their sense of religious ideals into the public realm," he says. "Everybody enters into the public sphere with a sense of what is the common good — that is a moral category. And most people, if you press them, say that they are motivated by their religious sense of what is right and wrong."

Posted Sept. 22, 2009

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