Who Speaks for America's Evangelicals?

Stephen McGarvey

The outspoken, politically conservative James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson may not always be the brand of leader Christian evangelicals are looking for, according to an article in USA Today

Journalist and author Mark Pinsky (who I interviewed on an unrelated matter years ago) has a great feature on this topic today. Who will lead tomorrow’s evangelicals? Pinsky believes as these enormously influential figures come to the end of their careers, the “emerging face and voice” of the next generation of Christian leaders will be much different than the current guard.

Will it continue to be bombastic, GOP-leaning, Southern preachers, such as the late Jerry Falwell, and strident, hard-line broadcasters such as Pat Robertson and Focus on the Family's James Dobson? I don't think so. From my neighborhood in the suburban Sunbelt, it is clear that a subtle, incremental but nonetheless tectonic shift is under way. And this is more than what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences."

The emerging face and voice of American evangelicalism is that of a pragmatic, politically sophisticated, pastor of a middle class megachurch. A younger generation of ministers such as Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life; Bill Hybels, of the pioneering Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago; T.D. Jakes, the African-American pastor of The Potter's House in Dallas, as well as a music and movie producer; and Frank Page, the re-elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

These new evangelical leaders may be different primarily in style rather than substance, but this shift will be significant to the movement. Says Pinsky:

[The future leaders] want to change the tone of the national political debate, making it less confrontational, and to open the movement to tactical coalitions with mainline Christian denominations, other faiths and even liberal secularists on a broad spectrum of issues.

True, on cultural touchstone issues such as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research, there is no difference between the Old Guard and the New Guard: All are equally opposed. But the younger pastors want to broaden the evangelical agenda beyond what Hunter calls "below the belt" issues linked to sexuality. For them, people of faith should engage issues such as AIDS, Darfur, economic justice, war and peace, prison reform and human trafficking. For Dobson and Robertson, this represents an unacceptable dilution of focus and a squandering of political capital.

Read the full article: Who speaks for America's evangelicals? “The answer is not as clear-cut as in years past. In fact, a younger generation of ministers is changing the face and voice of this very influential constituency. With the 2008 election approaching, that's no small thing.”