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Activist Christians aren't tied solely to conservative causes

When the progressive civil liberties group People for the American Way was considering civic activist and philanthropist Carole Shields for its presidency, board members liked the idea of a religious Christian at the helm.

"Somebody said, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a Baptist preacher's kid as president of the American Way?'

" said Shields, who was named to the post in April. "It would make it a little more difficult for the religious right to claim we're a bunch of heathens."

While progressive evangelicals in religious organizations have become increasingly vocal, less visible are leaders like Shields, who are making headway in the secular arena, in government agencies and in universities and public policy groups from the State Department to the Children's Defense Fund.

Like many of their more conservative peers, they believe the Bible is the inspired word of God _ albeit recorded by imperfect scribes _ and they are committed to promoting what they see as biblically based values, from equal rights for minorities to environmental stewardship.

Some speak openly about their religious beliefs at work, urging colleagues to hear the "good news." More tend to be "shy evangelists," like evangelical Quaker Michael Crook, who talk about their faith only when asked.

"You don't rise (in secular organizations) by being an in-your-face evangelist," said Crook, the senior director of policy communications for the National Wildlife Federation. Many who support liberal or moderate causes, he noted, avoid descriptives like "evangelical" or "born-again" because they're afraid of being labeled "Ralph Reed groupies," a reference to the director of the Christian Coalition. Founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition claims 1.7-million supporters and is regarded as a powerful conservative political force.

While it's true that conservatives dominate the evangelical scene, "evangelical" and "conservative" are not necessarily synonymous. According to a newly released study by the Pew Center for the People & the Press, 56 percent of whites who self-identify as evangelicals describe themselves as conservative _ but 32 percent call themselves moderate and 10 percent identify as liberal. Only 37 percent of black evangelicals described themselves as conservative, compared with 39 percent as moderate and 19 percent as liberal.

Many progressive evangelicals choose to work in secular circles to avoid preaching to the converted. "It would probably be a mistake to huddle in our own institutions," said Massachusetts Institute of Technology nuclear engineering professor Ian Hutchinson, who leads a team of 100 people researching controlled fusion energy _ "a cleaner . . . more benign form of nuclear energy."

Even in the secular arena, evangelicals often speak of their work with missionary fervor.

"I never look at anything I do as a job," said Susan Drake, former head of the State Department's Secretariat for the International Coral Reef Initiative and a lead U.S. negotiator at the United Nations for the Earth Summit. "I believe in vocations. Everything I do is to glorify God."

M. Gasby Greely also said she is "doing the Lord's work" as vice president of communications for the National Urban League, a social service and civil rights organization.

Like many of her progressive peers, Greely regrets that more conservative evangelicals have failed to make racial equality a priority. "Everyone has the right to be included in the mainstream," she said. "To me, that's justice, that's biblical and that's Christian."

Progressives are even tougher on conservatives who they believe fail to take seriously the biblical mandate to help the poor while supporting harsh welfare reform measures.

Some welfare reform advocates are trying "to take away from those who have least and give it to those who have the most," said Rep. Glenn Poshard, D-Ill., a Southern Baptist.

"Our faith teaches personal responsibility," said Poshard, "but in every instance Christ teaches us to care for the poor. We can't look at poor people and make the assumption that they can change their circumstances. Some can and some can't."

But even progressives who share Coalition views often differ on matters of tone.

"I agree with Ralph Reed on some things," said Poshard, such as his opposition to abortion. "And I thought his last book stepped back from an extreme viewpoint by calling for racial reconciliation and (an end) to gay bashing." But Poshard takes issue with conservatives who remain strident on issues such as abortion, vilifying women who choose that option.

"If my daughter had gone out and gotten pregnant," he said, "I would never have advised her to have gotten an abortion. But I would never have called her a murderer if she had felt compelled to do that. If my faith compels me to stand where I stand on the issue of life, the same faith calls me to love other people in the way God loves me, unconditionally."

While Shields believes the Gospel's emphasis on acceptance calls for supporting gay and lesbian rights, Greely said her reading of the Bible leads her to join with the Christian Coalition in opposing gay marriage. Still, she objects to Christians of any stripe who lambaste homosexuals.

"We cannot make fun of people's lifestyles and call them swishy, and expect them to come to know us as Christians," Greely said. "Yes, we must stand up for what we believe, but not in a mean-spirited fashion."

People For the American Way president Shields agreed: "It's astonishing to me that people could go into a third-grade classroom and say to a child, "You can't have a school lunch because of when your parents arrived in this country.' It's insane. It's inhumane. Would Christ take that position? I can't imagine."