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A new agenda for US Evangelicals

Evangelicals are weaving the ethic of 'neighbor love' into the fabric of sin and salvation.

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On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, Evangelical superstar Rick Warren – author of the runaway bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life" – hosted an AIDS summit at his California megachurch. The keynoter? Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois.

It's difficult to decide which is more astounding: a prominent evangelical pastor leading the fight against AIDS – a disease some Christian conservatives still tag as God's punishment for homosexuals – or a celebrated Democrat and possible 2008 presidential contender taking center stage at Mr. Warren's church. The Warren-Obama event reflects striking and welcome changes under way among America's 50 million Evangelicals, with potentially dynamic political consequences.

In recent decades, the political profile of white Evangelicals has been fairly predictable: strong allegiance to Republicans and focus on a few social concerns. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson form the familiar trinity of the Christian Right.

Although embryonic, a remarkable trend is emerging among Evangelicals today: the embrace of a social agenda that includes not only abortion and marriage, but poverty, AIDS, the environment, and human rights.

In February, a group of megachurch pastors and other leaders launched the "Evangelical Climate Initiative," calling for federal legislation to curb greenhouse gases. Earlier this fall, "Evangelicals for Darfur" – a group backed by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and the 30-million strong National Association of Evangelicals – pressured President Bush to take the lead in sending a multinational peacekeeping force to Sudan.

The most telling change is perhaps taking place in the pulpit. For most of the past century, Evangelicals have reacted against the Social Gospel movement of the progressive era, which many felt replaced the Gospel message with one of mere worldly social action. Today, however, a new generation of evangelical pastors is weaving an ethic of "neighbor love" into the fabric of sin and salvation.

Take the Rev. Tim Keller. In 1989, he founded Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church, now home to some 6,000 churchgoers. Dr. Keller's sermons often move seamlessly from a message of personal redemption to one of caring for the urban poor. Redeemer's "Hope for New York" program provides grants to social-service organizations and puts volunteers on the streets. Christians, Keller quips, should form a "counterculture for the common good."

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