On Abortion and Gay Rights, Evangelicals and Liberals Join to Advise Obama

The two groups offer Obama joint recommendations on the hot-button issues of abortion and gay rights.

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A coalition of prominent evangelical leaders who've partnered with Third Way, a Washington think tank influential in shaping Democratic Party policy and messaging, is presenting policy recommendations to Barack Obama's transition team today that purport to offer a consensus approach to hot-button issues that have long divided evangelicals and liberals.

The recommendations include a framework for reducing demand for abortion without further restricting abortion rights, through initiatives like grants for sex education that emphasizes abstinence but includes contraception, an expanded adoption tax credit, and a call for a federal prohibition on workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians, with an exemption for religious organizations.

"This is the first time that evangelicals have taken a gay equality position," says Rachel Laser, director of the culture Ppogram at Third Way.

The memo's drafters, including the Rev. Joel Hunter, a prominent Florida megachurch pastor, and the Rev. Sam Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, released the document—"Come Let Us Reason Together: A Governing Agenda to End the Culture Wars"—this morning, ahead of a meeting with religious outreach and policy aides on the Obama transition team.

"This is historic," says Rodriguez, who leads the largest evangelical Latino group in the United States and was a prominent supporter of Proposition 8, California's recently adopted gay-marriage ban. "Some of these people I'm in complete opposition to on the vast majority of public-policy ideas."

Besides its recommendations on abortion and gay rights, the memo presses Obama to officially ban U.S.-sponsored torture and to enact comprehensive immigration reform, with a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

The drafters acknowledge that economic concerns are likely to trump social issues in the near term but argue that that strengthens the case for trying to neutralize sensitive social issues. "To the extent that these issues are always the elephant in the room," says Third Way's Laser, "finding common ground is one of the most helpful things we can do to allow for further progress on the economy."

"Why bring up abortion when the economy trumps everything?" says Rodriguez. "It's precisely why we need to address these wedge issues—so they don't keep coming up. They will come up again in 2010 if we don't provide common ground."

The Obama team did not respond to requests for comment on the document or today's meeting.

The drafters—who also include progressive evangelicals Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, and David Gushee, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights—consulted with centrist evangelicals and liberal advocacy groups throughout the yearlong memo-drafting process, attempting to build support in both camps. The document has endorsements from social conservatives like Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw and from a handful of liberal groups. Another endorsement came from NARAL Pro-Choice America, which called it "a welcome addition" to the debate about reproductive rights.

An embargo on the memo until this morning made it impossible to get reaction from Christian right groups. "There will be pushback from the extreme right, who will see this as evangelical acquiescence," says Rodriguez. "There are very conservative quarters of the evangelical world that see contraception as unbiblical, for instance. But it's a no-brainer to push for a viable abortion-reduction strategy that goes beyond the wedge-issue sound bites."

Regarding abortion and gay rights, the memo's drafters said consensus was difficult to find. "We struggled most with the gay employment rights discussion, not just on the religious side but on the progressive side," says Gushee. "It's becoming the single most divisive issue in public life, but we found common ground."

Though the drafters were in contact with the Human Rights Campaign, the biggest gay rights group, in crafting the language on workforce discrimination, HRC withheld its endorsement because transgender people are not included on the call for a prohibition against workplace discrimination. "We really honor and take very seriously the work that went into the document," says Harry Knox, director of the group's faith and religion program. "We just regret that there was not enough time to do the education we thought would get them to a place where they could include transgender people in the document."