August 15, 2008 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Preparing the Way: Evangelicals and the election

Are evangelicals swerving to the left in American politics?

Throughout the primary season, the mainstream media loudly trumpeted the idea that younger evangelicals' attention to the environment and "social justice" issues signals a departure from traditional concerns such as abortion and marriage.

Rumblings of this shift within the conservative coalition heightens interest in a remarkable event Saturday: The Rev. Rick Warren, one of America's most influential evangelicals, is set to question presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama during their back-to-back appearances at his 22,000-member Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif.

Warren, whose 2002 bestseller The Purpose Driven Life made him a celebrity, has said he will focus on the presumptive nominees' "faith, values, character and leadership convictions" during the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency. The pastor lists climate change, poverty, AIDS and human rights among what he calls "pressing issues that are bridging divides in our nation."

The forum is an occasion to redirect the debate over social justice. First, it should challenge the notion that evangelical Christians only now are beginning to care. History tells a different story: Whether fighting to abolish slavery, reform prisons or found hospitals and schools, evangelicals long have been at the forefront of improving conditions for those at society's margins.

Second, the questions Warren poses should clarify that the real issue -- for evangelicals and all Americans -- has less to do with different sets of concerns than different conceptions of government's role in addressing those concerns.

Where will today's evangelicals -- younger ones in particular -- direct their desire for a better world? Will they channel it into support for government-driven solutions? Or toward more personal and congregational engagement?

Big-government approaches often end up doing more harm than good. For example, subsidies for ethanol, meant to reduce America's oil insecurity and fight global warming, triggered artificial shortages and higher prices for food around the world. Hardest hit: the poorest of the poor.

Similarly, social crusaders overlook effective antidotes to poverty when they take their eyes off the family. A child born and raised outside marriage is seven times more likely to live in poverty than a child born to married parents. Shouldn't that fact alone make marriage a priority in any effective anti-poverty campaign?

Finally, in considering government's contribution to justice, all of us would do well to heed the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The 20th-century German theologian, revered by many evangelicals, spoke of government's proper role as "preparing the way." His phrase is a reminder not to expect government to solve all our problems, but rather to encourage or protect those who can.

Imprisoned by Hitler and executed near the end of World War II for opposing the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was all too familiar with government attempts to build a "kingdom on earth." He believed instead that government is a servant that clears away brush or obstacles from a path. It should sustain a safe, secure space for families, neighbors and congregations to do good and care for one another.

Bonhoeffer's view, of course, aligned with the Bible's description of political authority. The task of kings and governors, 1 Peter 2:14 teaches, is "to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right." Notice, rulers aren't said to be direct providers of the good. Responsibility for "doing right" falls to others, whom government commends and protects.

"Protecting the good" rather than "providing the good" also is the vision of government described in the U.S. Constitution. Because Warren has said one goal of his Saddleback forum is to explore McCain and Obama's understanding of the Constitution and its principles, he would do well to ask whether they agree government isn't intended or equipped to tackle every social ill.

Warren himself has leveraged his influence for good, studying what works and what doesn't in meeting needs. He forged a strategy to link churches into a giant "network of networks" dedicated to relieving poverty and misery in developing nations. He hopes to count 10,000 churches in the network by 2010, and ultimately to mobilize one billion Christians worldwide.

Now that's a plan young evangelicals can get excited about. They're looking for ways to make their faith their own, to see it change the world.

Saturday's forum can help shape a more fruitful national discussion about social justice and true compassion. Good intentions don't necessarily lead to the most effective or just public policies. It's an opportunity for an audience of millions to see the importance of individuals and communities taking up responsibility for doing good.

Government exists, the Bible and Constitution agree, to protect such common cause.

Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ryan Messmore, D.Phil. Research Fellow
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

First appeared on National Review Online (