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Herb Opalek: Religion and politics

In our younger years it was the big bad wolf, the "giant" greeting Jack at the bean stalk and a variety of ogres that brought fear to our psyches. Today, a term that seems to scare much of adult America is "evangelical."

This is especially true when discussing the role of religion in politics.

In this election cycle, the campaigns of both Barack Obama and John McCain have made major efforts to understand and reach out to "evangelicals."

Last month, a leading evangelical pastor and author, Rick Warren, hosted these two presidential candidates at his church for a nationally televised interview.

Most recently, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was selected as John McCain's running mate, in part, because of her appeal to evangelical Christians and social conservatives.

This last occurrence seems to have frightened many in the media and secular community. The idea of a religious-conservative government has them in an uproar.

According to a recent survey, the rap against "evangelicals" is that they cause the political conversation to be conservative (57 percent), that they spend too much time complaining (57 percent) and that they are two-issue voters (abortion and homosexuality) (55 percent). Roughly two out of every five non-evangelicals (42 percent) believe that evangelicals will not approach the election with an open mind.

There is no doubt that the evangelical voting bloc has significant influence in the world of politics. But who is your average evangelical and, secondly, are they a single like-minded group?

One of the jokes that evangelicals like to tell is that you know you're an evangelical if liberals think you're a fundamentalist and if fundamentalists think you're a liberal. There is something of that middle ground character to evangelicalism.

Most people equate "evangelical" with being a fundamentalist and member of the religious right.

I think there is a fear among many Americans about the words "evangelical" and "evangelicals," because they associate these terms with the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the now-defunct Christian Coalition.

This is a shame, because I don't think that these Christian leaders are really in the evangelical tradition. They are American fundamentalists who espouse a rigid religious and aggressive confrontational stance that doesn't have much to do with biblical faith and with evangelicalism.

The evangelical Christian embodies four characteristics:

(1) A very strong belief in the Bible as the primary religious authority.

(2) A commitment to the practice of witnessing to their community, so that people need to be changed in a Christian direction as a basis for participation in the life of God.

(3) Activism, especially a willingness to tell other people about the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.

(4) A special assessment of the work of Christ on the cross.

The death and resurrection of Christ is the heart of the Christian faith for the evangelical.

People tend to think of "evangelicals" as a single united group. They believe them to be all conservative Republicans.

Actually, there are actually two types of political evangelicals. There are conservative evangelicals and a group that we call "freestyle evangelicals" and this second grouping often vote for the Democrat.

Theologically, these "freestyle evangelicals" share a lot with their evangelical brethren. They have the Bible as a central part of their life. They have a personal relationship with God.

But politically, they're different.

They care more about things like environmental issues and poverty issues. They tend to be politically more moderate. In 1996, Bill Clinton won the majority of freestyle evangelicals but in 2000, George Bush won the majority of them.

There is a perception that "evangelicals" would like to turn the United States into a theocratic state. This is so far from the truth that it is hard to imagine anyone really believing this calumny.

Evangelicals believe in the absolute separation of church and state. But we don't believe in the separation of public life from our values, our basic values, and for many of us, our religious values.

One of them for me, personally, is a deep concern about overcoming poverty. That is a religious value for me, not just a political one.

In point of fact, being an "evangelical" challenges the current assumption about western political values that, "Well, religion is private. Politics is public. And never the twain shall meet."

So by our speaking out on the political landscape, evangelicals are challenging the biases of western political foundation and this is disconcerting to many secularists.

So, despite the hullabaloo in the media, Sarah Palin is not the big bad wolf or bogeywoman that many make her out to be.

You need not agree with her politics or even vote for her, but you must admit that she is no less a concerned citizen than any other voter. She is governed in her life by what Hebrew National calls "a higher authority" and it is this evangelical commitment to life's everyday issues that makes her the person she is.

Who's afraid of the big bad evangelical? Surely, it is not you.

Herbert A. Opalek is CEO of the Merced County Rescue Mission.