An unlikely alliance is building in Washington. Evangelical Christians have been joining forces with environmentalists and women's rights groups to support Congressional legislation that calls for - among other things - religious toleration and a commitment to end global warming. The alliance is remarkable, because these groups usually stand at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
With more than 30 million members, the National Association of Evangelicals seeks to expand evangelical influence in the world, calling upon Christians everywhere to engage their societies on issues of moral importance. To that end, the NAE has called for abortion to be outlawed and gay marriages to be declared unconstitutional.
But Richard Cizik, the group's Vice President for Governmental Affairs, says the NAE's political agenda is much deeper than that. "Most people on the street won't identify the environment, for example - or 'creation care' as we call it -- as a priority concern of evangelical Christians," Rev. Cizik says. "But we're saying that it should be."
The NAE recently passed a resolution highlighting seven priorities that the group believes all conservative Christians should have. The list includes opposition to euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research - stances traditionally associated with the conservative end of the political spectrum. But it also calls upon evangelicals to "protect God's creation," an environmental mandate more traditionally associated with liberal groups. And it calls for laws that will address global and national disparities in wages, health care, and wealth creation.
"The evangelical agenda has always been broader than that characterized
by the hot-button cultural issues," says Allen Hertzke, who teaches Political Science and Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma. According to Professor Hertzke, more and more evangelical leaders have been partnering with groups like the Feminist Majority -- which favors legalized abortion -- to push for legislation like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
Passed in 2000, the law works to combat the illegal practice of selling women and children into prostitution and slavery. "It was sparked initially by the persecution of their fellow believers around the world," Allen Hertzke says. "But that has since blossomed into a much wider quest to promote human rights through the machinery of American foreign policy."
That quest -- and the growing willingness of conservative evangelicals and secular liberals to join forces -- has led to the passage of some major pieces of human rights legislation. The Sudan Peace Act of 2002, for example, provided immediate aid to southern Sudan and required the United States to monitor peace negotiations there. It was promoted by conservative evangelicals and members of the traditionally Democratic Congressional Black Caucus.
But not all evangelical leaders are comfortable with the alliances being built in Washington - and some of these leaders wield a great deal of influence. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, for instance, chairs the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. He calls global warming a "myth," and says it's an idea manufactured by far-left environmentalists who want to distract the nation - and people of faith -- from issues like abortion.
Senator Inhofe, who is himself an evangelical, disapproves of the NAE's willingness to make human-induced climate change a political and spiritual priority. And he does not think the group should be working with any organization that promotes legalized abortion or same-sex marriage. "If you really believe in your heart that life begins at conception, there's no compromise in that," Senator Inhofe says.
Furthermore, he says politically, conservative groups have nothing to gain by compromising. "The conservative agenda has won elections for the last 4 election cycles," Senator Ihnofe says. "Why compromise when you're ahead?"
But Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals insists that sometimes you need to compromise in order to get important things done. "We're not associating ourselves with some of what the environmental movement has done wrong," he clarifies. "I think it was wrong of the environmental movement to become associated with population control movements, for example. So given the fact that there have been some unfortunate associations that the environmentalists have made, I'm not going to call myself an 'environmentalist.' But do I envision our movement as evangelicals' collaborating with environmentalists to help save the planet? Sure! I don't see how it could be done without that collaboration."
To accomplish that collaboration, though, Reverend Cizik says he is going to have to convince more than just conservative evangelicals. Liberals, too, he says, can sometimes be uncomfortable with the idea of compromise.