Thursday, February 15, 2007

Farm policy from the pulpit...

I had posted before about the seemingly odd dialog between evangelicals and environmentalists. A reader asked about my definition of "evangelical". I do not purport to be the "decider" of the meaning, but will use what I believe to be the common understanding of the word.

Evangelical as it is commonly used today refers to a particular segment of Christians:

John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, found in the 2004 American Religious Landscape Report [1] that despite many variations, evangelicals in the United States generally adhere to four core beliefs:

  1. Biblical inerrancy
  2. Salvation comes only through faith in Jesus and not good works. (in particular the belief in atonement [2] for sins at the cross and the resurrection [3] of Christ)
  3. Individuals (above an age of accountability) must personally trust in Jesus Christ for salvation.
  4. All Christians are commissioned to evangelize and should be publicly baptized [4] as a confession of faith.

In regard to "Biblical inerrancy", a notable American summit on Bible inerrancy was held in Chicago in 1978. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was signed by nearly 300 noted American evangelical scholars (see main article). There is no absolute consensus among evangelicals regarding Biblical inerrancy; however there is a general acceptance of Biblical authority. [More]

My personal beliefs are not far from the above with the exception of Biblical inerrancy. I respect and read the Bible. I choose not to worship it, considering such as a form of idolatry. [BTW - I have started listening to lectures from Great Courses during my 3 hour commute each week to South Bend to tape US Farm Report. I have just ordered "The Story of the Bible". I'll let you know what I think after I get into it.]

Evangelicals have become a political force, especially within the conservative wing of the Republican party. Indeed, what was formerly (pre-1980 or so) as religious classification of believers dedicated to evangelizing, that is converting non-believers, became a cohesive body whose major concern was to enforce the conduct of personal life in accordance with proscribed rules. The ability of Karl Rove to mobilize and motivate this group helped them become the most important electoral faction for the Republican party.

In fact, some critics charge, and I tend to agree, that the politics has become the core issue, not the religion. Andrew Sullivan coined the term "christianist" to indicate the politicization of belief. The evangelical movement is led by strong voices like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and to a decreasing extent, the slightly loopy Pat Robertson.

I am not attracted to nor convinced by their thundering broadsides of sanctimonious cant against abortion, homosexuality, or evolution. Evangelicals in turn tend to despise those of us who have doubts about our faith, but are struggling to apply it to our lives nonetheless.

In recent years, the evangelical movement has raised some more moderate voices, notably Pastor Rick Warren, the famed author of "The Purpose-Driven Life". I find this development and this new ministry approach encouraging. The biggest difference for me and self-described evangelicals seems to be I strongly support their right to disagree with me, and I am willing to entertain the thought that on some matters they may be right. Evangelicals for the most part cannot reciprocate that sentiment.

Which gets us finally to farm policy. While the Evangelical Lutheran Church (one example known to me) has long been involved in farm policy debate, the more political evangelicals have had little time for non-core issues. That may be changing, thanks to the linkage between environmentalism and farm policy.

The mellowing of evangelical Christianity may well be the big American religious story of this decade. The evolution of the evangelical movement should not be confused with the rise of a religious left. Although the margin of the Republican Party's advantage among white evangelicals is likely to decline from its exceptionally high level in the 2004 election, a substantial majority of white evangelicals will probably remain conservative and continue to vote Republican.

But the evangelical political agenda is broadening as new voices insist on the urgency of issues such as Third World poverty and the fights against AIDS and human trafficking. Among the most prominent advocates for a wider view of Christian obligation is Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of "The Purpose Driven Life."

In the meantime, Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (and a self-described "Ronald Reagan movement conservative"), has been a leader in urging evangelicals to make environmental stewardship a central element of their political mission. This has earned him attacks from such prominent leaders on the Christian right as James Dobson. [More]

Note also the issue of Third World poverty. Relief groups such as Oxfam have made strong cases that our farm subsidies contribute to poverty in poor countries. Now attach that concern to people who contribute time, money and prayer to mission work, and you have perhaps the seeds for change among those who formerly did not care much whether I got an LDP or not.

One of those listening on Bono's speaking tour was Shayne Moore, a 35-year-old mother of three in Wheaton, Illinois. Ms. Moore, a graduate of Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school near Chicago, says she "couldn't figure out what my conservative alma mater was doing giving Bono a voice." But "that night changed my life. Bono said something like, 'Politicians get nervous when rock stars and soccer moms get involved.' Well, I thought, I'm a soccer mom."

She traveled to Honduras and Kenya at her own expense, and also to last summer's meeting in Scotland of the leaders of the countries known as the Group of Eight, a trip that was paid for by aid groups. Back home, she tells groups what she has seen. "The person picking cotton in rags is just as important as the person picking cotton in an awesome combine," she says in an interview. "I don't begrudge him the awesome combine, but not at the expense of the farmer in rags." [More]

While some see this newfound global concern as temporary - a distraction from the goal of returning America to godly living - others view it as a maturation of belief, or even a true effort to attend Scripture and apply it to our lives.

To be sure the environmental movement is morphing at the edges into something like a religion. The strange (to me) Gaia hypothesis is typical of a kind of nature reverence that is profoundly appealing in our technological world. I cannot see these two groups truly bonding, but I can see their individual influences complementing each other politically. They need not merge to be effective. My personal conjecture is that concern for the environment and other people could prove to be an entry to faith, rather than a distraction for believers. At any rate, it certainly should rank low as a threat to Christians.

The test will come when from rural pulpits convicted Christian leaders mention the farm bill the same way they do other matters of social justice. Regardless of which side of the farm bill debate you are on, it will introduce a new influence into the discussion.

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