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Progressive evangelicals finding secular success

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.

While it is 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 liberal. Only 37 percent of black evangelicals described themselves as conservative, compared to 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."

Evangelicals, he said, "should be out in the world being "salt and light' in secular institutions."

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."

Crook was working the environmental beat at the Miami Herald when he felt called to a vocation more in keeping with his faith. "I wanted to come out of the closet as an environmentalist and not hide behind a pretense of objectivity. I prayed to God for a more direct way to work on the environment." Months later, he applied for a job at the National Wildlife Federation and was hired quickly.