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Amid Religious Conflicts, Finding Reasons for Hope

While polarization marks and blights politics in America today, and while popular culture, commerce and religion are afflicted with the all-or-nothing ideologies and practices that prevent the citizenry from meeting the challenges which only intensify as seasons pass, here and there and now and then Sightings (this column series from the Martin Marty Center for the Advance Study of Religion) spies counter-signs.
While the media focus on conflict among and within religious communities, those who take the longer view can find occasions for inspiration.

That I so often find such signs in publications like The Economist or The Wall Street Journal surprises some readers and perhaps needs some explaining now and then.

A half century ago the company of historians with whom I hung out began to speak of a “two-party system” in American Protestantism and, for that matter, in Catholicism and other communities.

Then and ever since, the parties kept redefining themselves, drawing revised lines, seeking and finding new causes, new enemies and new friends.

The lines hardened for decades when “the Christian Right” faced off against religious expressions of “the New Left.” My work often took me to places where expectations imprisoned imaginations.

Sometimes invited to mainly evangelical conferences, I would be introduced as “the non-evangelical guest at this year’s meeting.”

I would remind others that, among other things, I was the only participant who belonged to a church body which had the word “evangelical” in its very name. Enough about that.

Times have changed. Today if one has a conference or project on worthwhile causes – the environment, health care, immigration, etc. etc. – one counts on leadership from among all ages, including camps named “evangelical,” an ever more diffuse company.

I like to say that within Protestantism, the most creative and venturesome people came from “the left of the right and the right of the left – which is not the center.”

The former group, thoroughly evangelical, ventures into the public sector on lines of engagement, not ideology.

The latter, often called moderate or liberal or mainstream, draws on the historic and theological depths of their traditions. For the better.

We’ll take a recent example from The Wall Street Journal, where Richard E. Stearns, president of World Vision USA, makes “TheEvangelicalCaseforForeignAid.”

In a time of budget-cutting and neo-isolation, Stearns properly points out that evangelicals had not been visible in religious coalitions to counter the push from many politicians who would eliminate programs to “reduce global poverty and hunger, saving millions of lives.”

“But why,” asks Stearns, “are evangelical Christians largely absent from this religious coalition?”

While evangelicals agree with others that responding to hunger and poverty is not a partisan but a moral issue, 56 percent of them, when polled by Pew, showed that evangelicals are most ready to oppose anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs, proposing that they should be first to go.

They swallow misinformation about such programs.

Awakened when he visited scenes of crisis – which are almost everywhere – Stearns came back and worked with World Vision and other such agencies to change evangelical minds and organizations and policies. He can point to progress, even as he chides the laggards.

Something new is on the way. One hopes that similarly awakened and aroused leaders in similar groups also in Catholicism and other religious circles will keep reappraising their positions, revisiting their religious sources, and not worrying about lines drawn in the prime of “The Christian Right” and “the New Left.”

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.