By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Members of a generation of evangelical leaders who've stepped onto the national political stage in the last decade have gone out of their way to define themselves as outside the Christian right, their socially conservative views notwithstanding. Think Rick Warren or Joel Hunter.
Such figures have two big beefs with the Christian right: its single-minded focus on hot-button issues—more or less ignoring social justice issues like fighting poverty or HIV/AIDS in Africa—and its belligerent approach to politics. (In the 1990s, Ralph Reed, then director of the Christian Coalition, said his enemies wouldn't be aware of his vast grass-roots army "until you're in a body bag.")
The Warrens and Hunters of the evangelical world broadened the evangelical political agenda and avoided slash-and-burn tactics and rhetoric.
For years, the Christian right criticized this new approach. "The poor and needy are important," James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, told me a few years back. "But . . . with the killing of 43 million babies, it's not in the same league—we're talking the unborn holocaust.
"You have to decide the things that matter most. . . . If that makes us sound extreme, I'll take it," he continued.
That was in 2005. These days, though, signs abound that the Christian right's old lions are coming around to Warren's and Hunter's way of doing things. Even if they continue to fixate on hot-button issues, the old guard is nonetheless shedding the bellicose rhetoric and a with-us-or-against-us view of politics.
Ralph Reed recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (following up on a story I broke here) that his new grass-roots group "has to be younger, hipper, less strident" than the Christian Coalition was. Jim Daly, the new president of Focus on the Family, has adopted a similarly winsome attitude, rejecting Dobson's warlike tone. Daly has repeatedly praised President Barack Obama. And just this week, he wrote a letter to an organ of the mainstream media—a bogeyman to the old Christian right—to compliment it on a recent story.
Will the Christian right's new, nicer approach work? It's unclear. Given the movement's sagging fortunes, however—Focus on the Family is struggling financially, and Reed has yet to prove his group's viability—it clearly feels that it must either follow Warren's and Hunter's lead or risk being eclipsed by them.