NEW YORK – Determined to break the links binding partisan politics and faith, growing numbers of religious moderates are uniting and organizing in an unprecedented bid to challenge the Christian Right and broaden the values agenda beyond the issues of abortion and gay marriage.

The November midterm elections serve as a kind of dress rehearsal for the more prominent role these moderates, many without any political party alignment, hope to play in the 2008 presidential election and other political contests.

This new coalition of moderate and progressive Christians underscored its intentions with a flurry of activity this week, as prominent conservative Christian leaders and politicians converged on Washington for the Family Research Council’s first annual Values Voter Summit (Sept. 22-24).

“God is not a Republican or Democrat. That must be obvious, but it must be said,” said Jim Wallis, a leading evangelical and founder and president of Sojourners/Call to Renewal, a progressive faith-based movement concerned with poverty and the intersection of faith and politics. “There has been this hijacking or takeover of the Republican Party by its right wing and hijacking of religion by the religious right,”

On Monday, Wallis, author of “God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It,” launched Red Letter Christians, an effort that takes its name from the red ink some Bibles use to highlight the words of Jesus Christ. A non-partisan faith-based campaign, it will open field offices in key battleground states and provide voter guides, speakers and information on such issues as poverty, social justice, education and the environment, but will not endorse candidates.

On the same day, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty watchdog group, announced a national campaign to remind – and warn – churches that federal tax law prohibits partisan politicking by tax-exempt groups.

On Tuesday, three-term former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., an Episcopal priest and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, added his voice to the moderate cause with the publication of his book, “Faith and Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together.”

“I want moderates to find their voices. I just think we need a big public movement on this,” said Danforth. He said he was spurred to act after being appalled by the intervention of his party, religious conservatives and President Bush in the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state, when her husband sought to remove her from life support. Predicting a backlash against the increasing political consonance of faith with conservative Christianity and the GOP, Danforth said, “I think the antidote to all of this is for a lot of people to speak out. Beyond people writing about it, the key is for the ordinary citizen to engage with this issue of the use of religion as a wedge to divide the American people.”

Danforth said he is convinced that the majority of Americans are religious moderates or centrists but that, in line with the very definition of the word moderate, they have not been as vocal or as driven by passion as their conservative counterparts.

On Wednesday, a national survey of 2,500 people on religion, values and politics released by the Center for American Values in Public Life, a nonpartisan research project of the liberal People For the American Way Foundation, yielded some support for this view.

“Fully half of Americans can be classified as centrist in their religious orientation, while 22 percent are traditionalists, 18 percent are modernists, and 10 percent are secular or nonreligious,” according to an analysis of the survey findings by Robert Jones, the center’s executive director. Eighty-six percent of those surveyed said that religion is important in their lives.

Asked to name the most important issue in the 2006 elections, respondents cited jobs and the economy at 23 percent, the war in Iraq at 17 percent and terrorism and national security at 15 percent as the top three issues. Abortion and gay marriage came in last among the issues named at 5 percent.

According to Jones’ analysis, “even among evangelical Christians, issues like addressing poverty and providing affordable health care handily trump restricting access to abortion and banning gay marriage.”

Responding on his Web site to the moderates’ call for “a different moral agenda,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said, “These liberal leaders fail to speak to the millions of values voters who were central to the 2004 election and who identify abortion and marriage as key issues driving them to the polls.”

But many see signs of change since 2004 and say that, because of a confluence of demographic, cultural and political developments, the time may be propitious for moderates to make inroads.

“It’s not just about Terri Schiavo, but the war and Katrina and some of the things we’ve seen happen in ethics concerning both the House and executive branch of government,” said C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the non-partisan Interfaith Alliance Foundation. “I think that honest, rational people have begun to understand that not everybody who uses the language of religion is religious. … They’re beginning to see that, in some instances, religious rhetoric and relationships to (religious) institutions have been more about campaign strategy than they have been about the high principles of morality.”

“I have expected this,” said Phillip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University. “Some of it I honestly think is generational. I say that because I noticed that among my students, first and foremost, those who considered themselves conservative or evangelical Christians were not defining themselves by the social issues that have been driving elections.

“In politics, generally, they struck me as being far more green and environmentally conscious than evangelicals of even 10 years ago that I had in the classroom. They were not animated by issues such as homosexuality. That was my first tip. Abortion is still, for the most part, a big issue for them, but even then, it wasn’t the first thing they’d talk about,” he said.

Goff said the rise of so-called mega-churches, where worship is emphasized over divisive social issues, may also encourage evangelicals to hold divergent views without meeting opposition from the pulpit.

Wallis acknowledged the nearly 40-year head start that religious conservatives hold in terms of organization and political influence. “Are they more organized and mobilized? Absolutely. But we’re getting organized. They have more numbers, yes, but we’re growing. The movement’s growing. It’s growing quickly,” he said, noting his organization has an e-mail list of 250,000 names.

“In many ways what you’re seeing now is more than a first wave. It’s moderate and progressive people of faith pushing back against the fundamentalism of the religious right, but even more against … subjecting our deepest faith to a partisan agenda,” said Tom Perriello, a co-founder of Catholics In Alliance for the Common Good, a new group of progressive and moderate Catholics.

Said Wallis, “In 2008, you’re going to see a very different conversation. This is the beginning.”

He may be right, said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and a leading expert on issues of politics and religion. “You may go into 2008 with a fairly strong religious right, but also stronger religious alternatives to the Christian Right than we’ve seen in the last decade.”

(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTOS on MCT Direct (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): John Danforth, Terri Schiavo

AP-NY-09-22-06 0607EDT

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