The new evangelicals:

Southern Baptists’ hands-on approach to changing the world

posted by Bob Smietana

On the evening of Good Friday 2013, several thousand young evangelicals will file into The Church at Brook Hill in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in that Red State. They will open up their Bibles and then for the next six hours listen as a slender, boyish-looking pastor walks them through long passages of Scripture verse by verse and tells them to forsake material goods and self-indulgence and devote their lives to serving Jesus. All around the country other gatherings of young people will tune in by simulcast. David Platt, author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, is not a typical celebrity pastor. He does no book tours, doesn’t drive a Bentley, seems to have no opinions about politics, and hardly ever has time for even a brief interview with reporters. And he’s not the stereotypical Southern Baptist power broker.

Back in the late 1970s, a group of ambitious Southern Baptist pastors launched a culture war on two fronts—against the moderates in their own Southern Baptist denomination and against the liberals they feared were contaminating America culture. Their goal was to take both back for God. As leaders of the largest Protestant group in the US and the dominant faith group in the South, those Southern Baptist leaders were one of the driving forces behind the rise of the religious right, which helped created the Republican dominance in the South.

Yet some of these Southern evangelicals are also among the “new evangelicals” described by Marcia Pally. And they are not easy to pigeonhole.

Younger Baptist leaders like Platt still vote Republican. They still want to restrict abortion and continue to believe that gay marriage is wrong. They believe their view of faith—that Jesus is the only way to salvation—is the only true way. But they have no interest in becoming the new leaders of Red America or in building denominational kingdoms. These pastors and their follower are less likely to aspire to political power and personal gain, because they’ve found those things wanting. Instead they really do aspire to change the world—by volunteering in orphanages overseas, starting charities, drilling wells, adopting orphans from overseas, establishing churches, and setting up Bible study groups to draw their peers closer to faith.

They are suspicious of government programs, preferring hands-on approaches to dealing with issues such as poverty, homelessness, and the lack of clean water. They are willing to support some unexpected programs—for example, pressure from evangelicals led former President George W. Bush to spend more money on fighting the AIDS epidemic than any of his predecessors. And while they do want people to have access to health care, they are uncompromising in their refusal to go along with policies that they feel violate their principles. A clear example of this was the legal challenge to the so-called contraceptive mandate. A number of evangelical colleges, which would otherwise support health care reform, have sued to block the Obama administration from enforcing that mandate.

How these new evangelicals fit into today’s red state blue state, culture war divide, remains to be seen.

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