Monday, February 4, 2008

Nicholas Kristof on Evangelical Activism

Nicholas Kristof has a must-read op-ed on the nature of Evangelical activism around the world:

Liberals believe deeply in tolerance and over the last century have led the battles against prejudices of all kinds, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock.

Scorning people for their faith is intrinsically repugnant, and in this case it also betrays a profound misunderstanding of how far evangelicals have moved over the last decade. Today, conservative Christian churches do superb work on poverty, AIDS, sex trafficking, climate change, prison abuses, malaria and genocide in Darfur.

Bleeding-heart liberals could accomplish far more if they reached out to build common cause with bleeding-heart conservatives. And the Democratic presidential candidate (particularly if it’s Mr. Obama, to whom evangelicals have been startlingly receptive) has a real chance this year of winning large numbers of evangelical voters.

. . .

A recent CBS News poll found that the single issue that white evangelicals most believed they should be involved in was fighting poverty. The traditional issue of abortion was a distant second, and genocide was third.

Look, I don’t agree with evangelicals on theology or on their typically conservative views on taxes, health care or Iraq. Self-righteous zealots like Pat Robertson have been a plague upon our country, and their initial smugness about AIDS (which Jerry Falwell described as “God’s judgment against promiscuity”) constituted far grosser immorality than anything that ever happened in a bathhouse. Moralizing blowhards showed more compassion for embryonic stem cells than for the poor or the sick, and as recently as the 1990s, evangelicals were mostly a constituency against foreign aid.

Yet that has turned almost 180 degrees. Today, many evangelicals are powerful internationalists and humanitarians — and liberals haven’t awakened to the transformation. The new face of evangelicals is somebody like the Rev. Rick Warren, the California pastor who wrote “The Purpose Driven Life.”

Mr. Warren acknowledges that for most of his life he wasn’t much concerned with issues of poverty or disease. But on a visit to South Africa in 2003, he came across a tiny church operating from a dilapidated tent — yet sheltering 25 children orphaned by AIDS.

“I realized they were doing more for the poor than my entire megachurch,” Mr. Warren said, with cheerful exaggeration. “It was like a knife in the heart.” So Mr. Warren mobilized his vast Saddleback Church to fight AIDS, malaria and poverty in 68 countries. Since then, more than 7,500 members of his church have paid their own way to volunteer in poor countries — and once they see the poverty, they immediately want to do more.

“Almost all of my work is in the third world,” Mr. Warren said. “I couldn’t care less about politics, the culture wars. My only interest is to get people to care about Darfurs and Rwandas.”

. . .

It’s certainly fair to criticize Catholic leaders and other conservative Christians for their hostility toward condoms, a policy that has gravely undermined the fight against AIDS in Africa. But while robust criticism is fair, scorn is not.

In parts of Africa where bandits and warlords shoot or rape anything that moves, you often find that the only groups still operating are Doctors Without Borders and religious aid workers: crazy doctors and crazy Christians. In the town of Rutshuru in war-ravaged Congo, I found starving children, raped widows and shellshocked survivors. And there was a determined Catholic nun from Poland, serenely running a church clinic.

Unlike the religious right windbags, she was passionately “pro-life” even for those already born — and brave souls like her are increasingly representative of religious conservatives. We can disagree sharply with their politics, but to mock them underscores our own ignorance and prejudice.



Read it all here.

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