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3/4/2006 10:24 am

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3/5/2006 9:27 pm


by Michelle Cottle
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 03.03.06

Every couple of months a news story pops up about how the evangelical community is growing up, reaching out, and expanding its political activism beyond the traditional issues of personal piety: abortion, sex education, smut, and anything to do with homosexuality.
The standard series of events goes something like this: A coalition of evangelical activists--often including a smattering of conservatives like James Dobson, but spearheaded by more moderate folks like Rich Cizik, top lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals--comes out with a statement about how, despite what you may have heard about evangelicals, they really do care about homeless people and uninsured people and black people and the environment, and henceforth they'll be working together to address a whole range of entrenched problems plaguing this great nation.
Such statements, in turn, typically make media types all goose-pimply, as they fantasize about the politically delectable spectacle of, say, the Sierra Club joining forces with Focus on the Family to ram global warming legislation down the throats of big-business Republicans. Who can resist such a story, after all? Unfortunately, it ain't ever gonna happen.
For those interested in a detailed account of why this evangelical agenda expansion is on the fast track to nowhere, check out my May 2005 piece, "Prayer Center." For the rest of you, suffice it to say that, for a wide variety of reasons, while many evangelicals may feel deeply about issues like poverty relief and "creation care" (i.e., environmentalism), most of the leaders who control the movement's political activism remain overwhelmingly obsessed with--and will fight like hell to keep the troops focused on--old fashioned red-meat issues of sex.
Case in point: Just this week I received a long, breathless wire story from the Southern Baptist Church's news service reporting that some conservative groups were up in arms over the fact that the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a coalition of Christian leaders committed to fighting global warming, had recently accepted a major grant from the Hewlett Foundation, a (gasp!) secular organization that also happens to fund family planning efforts.
Now some folks might see such a grant as providential, since every dollar that Hewlett hands over to the Evangelical Climate Initiative is one fewer dollar it can spend on promoting abortion. Instead, the wing nuts at Operation Rescue and Concerned Women for America promptly began hyperventilating about the real purpose of the funding. "Hewlett Foundation is one of the most prodigious and unabashed funders of abortion causes," charged Concerned Women for America president Wendy Wright. "Its significant grant for this initiative, along with the controversial Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, reveals where this effort could lead. They would not fund something that contradicts their main missions."
Let me get this straight: Giving large sums of money to an initiative launched by a bunch of evangelicals--instead of, say, to Planned Parenthood--is part of some sinister backdoor plan to promote abortion? I can't even get my mind around that line of reasoning--and I use the term loosely. Fortunately, Operation Rescue President Troy Newman provided enlightenment, publicly charging that Hewlett aims to combat global warming through controlling population growth. Why it would choose to do this through a religious group openly opposed to abortion is apparently unclear even to Mr. Newman, who nonetheless rhetorically demanded: "Why is Hewlett giving $475,000 to the Environmental Climate Initiative if they do not believe this furthers their pro-abortion population control agenda?"
Um. Maybe because Hewlett, unlike so many wing-nuts on the right, is actually capable of focusing on a couple of different issues at once? That would be my guess. But that sort of thinking is anathema to the folks at Concerned Women for America and Operation Rescue. For them, all roads lead to sex, and all the horrible things that go with it.
On a related note, look at the conservative uproar over the recent movie The End of the Spear. The film tells the story of five missionaries slain by an indigenous tribe in Ecuador in 1956 and of how the missionaries' families went on to forgive, befriend, and actually convert the killers. The episode itself galvanized and inspired evangelical Christians in the 1950s. The movie, produced by an evangelical film company, was meant to do the same for the movement today.
Unfortunately, the film's star, Chad Allen, is an out and proud gay man and erstwhile activist--a discovery that prompted letters of protest, calls for apologies, and even boycotts of the film by outraged evangelicals. Claiming that the film's producers--who, again, are themselves evangelical--were seeking to corrupt Christian children, the president of Central Baptist Seminary in Minneapolis went so far as to blog, ''It would probably be an overreaction to firebomb these men's houses. But what they have done is no mistake. It is a calculated strategy.''
Wow. Good thing nobody is overreacting.
It's not as though Allen had been accused of slipping a pro-gay subtext into his performance. Neither had he been using publicity surrounding the film to take a "Go Gay" message to Christian youth. In fact, if the anti-homo police hadn't made such a fuss, most people would never have known Allen wasn't as righteously heterosexual as, say, the Reverend Jim Bakker.
Alas, some on the right are so obsessed by the fact of Allen's (or anyone's) gayness that they cannot see past it--and would happily sink a consciously, aggressively pro-evangelical film that had sullied itself by association. Once again, anyone who dares take his eye off the sex ball for even a second to consider other issues is, if not actively doing Satan's bidding, then at least dangerously misguided.
So you'll excuse me if I don't expect Focus on the Family or the Family Research Council to start lobbying for an enviro-friendly energy policy any time soon. Because for many evangelicals, sex is, was, and always will be the Alpha and the Omega. And woe be unto anyone who tries to change the subject or even expand the conversation.

MICHELLE COTTLE is a senior editor at TNR.

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