At a New York or Los Angeles cocktail party, few would dare make a pejorative comment about Barack Obama's race or Hillary Clinton's sex. Yet it would be easy to get away with deriding Mike Huckabee's religious faith.
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 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 Obama, to whom evangelicals have been startlingly receptive) has a real chance this year of winning large numbers of evangelical voters.
"Evangelicals are going to vote this year in part on climate change, on Darfur, on poverty," said Jim Wallis, the author of a new book, The Great Awakening, which argues that the age of the religious right has passed and that issues of social justice are rising to the top of the agenda. Wallis says that about half of white evangelical votes will be in play this year.
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.
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," Warren said, with cheerful exaggeration. "It was like a knife in the heart." So 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.
"I couldn't care less about politics, the culture wars," Warren said. "My only interest is to get people to care about Darfurs and Rwandas."
Helene Gayle, the head of CARE, said evangelicals "have made some incredible contributions" in the struggle against global poverty. "We don't give them credit for the changes they've made," she added. Fred Krupp, the president of Environmental Defense, said, "Many evangelical leaders have been key to taking the climate issue across the cultural divide."
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 war-ravaged Congo, I found starving children, raped widows and shell-shocked survivors. And there was a determined Catholic nun from Poland, serenely running a church clinic.
Unlike the religious right windbags, she was passionately "prolife" 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.
©New York Times News Service