Writer says U.S. evangelicals broadening their agenda

February 18, 2008

Walter Russel MeadThe March issue of the U.S. magazine The Atlantic has a thought-provoking comment by Walter Russel Mead on America’s evangelical movement, arguing that it is growing more moderate and more powerful.

Mead draws on what for many would appear an unlikely source for such an observation: Adam Smith’s 1776 classic “The Wealth of Nations.”

Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming,” he writes, noting that these new movements often rejected liberal values while seeking to mould society along their conservative lines through political activism.

However, Mead says Smith observed that entering the political fray exerted a moderating influence on them because it required them to reach out to other faiths and build coalitions.

Mead sees the same forces at work today on U.S. evangelicals, who number roughly 60 million or one in five Americans and whose political activism in recent decades has been most closely associated with the so-called “religious right” and the Republican Party.

American evangelicalism today is flexible, user-friendly, and market-driven,” he writes. “These new evangelicals share many values with their secular neighbours; they and their pastors are reshaping their politics to match.”

This is provocative stuff. Many of the “new evangelicals” are broadening their Biblical agenda to embrace issues such as helping the poor and greening the planet.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher whose opposition to abortion and gay marriage echo the old religious right but who has a soft spot for the poor and the little guy, has been held up as a political example of this widening agenda.

Huckabee and people who have supported him, such as Florida mega-pastor Joel Hunter– another prominent example of this trend — show that these evangelicals still feel more comfortable in the Republican fold, hinting at a moderating of that party’s evangelical wing rather than an exodus to the Democratic Party.

Watch this space: it’s going to be interesting.

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