The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) on November 8 released a new policy that falls just short of urging total nuclear disarmament while surmising that reliance on nukes might be idolatrous.
NAE was founded in the 1940’s to counter the liberal and then influential National Council of Churches, and was historically a conservative bulwark. Its most famous public moment was likely President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech to NAE.
But a new generation has ascended to leadership of NAE, which reports membership of 40 denominations that include about 45,000 local churches. The new NAE has distanced itself from the old religious right with more liberal stances on the environment, U.S. enhanced interrogation techniques, federal budget policy and immigration. During its October board meeting in Washington, D.C., NAE officials met with President Obama. And the NAE board also approved the new anti-nuclear weapons statement. It notes that a “growing body of Christian thought calls into question the acceptability of nuclear weapons as part of a just national defense, given that the just war theory categorically admonished against indiscriminate violence and requires proportionality and limited collateral damage."
NAE’s new nuclear weapons stance suggests that “continued possession undermines the nonproliferation regime and commitments by the nuclear powers to actively pursue nuclear disarmament.” It also observes: “Many argue that they [nukes] weaken rather than strengthen our security.” And it warns: “Scripture shows that national military might too often takes the place of trust in God.”
Over the Summer an initial NAE nuclear discussion group included Tyler Wigg-Stevenson of the Two Futures Project, a group aimed at persuading evangelicals to back complete nuclear disarmament. A former protégé to the late Democratic Senator Alan Cranston, Wigg-Stevenson helped present the draft nuclear statement to the NAE board in October, though he himself is not a board member. During the Summer discussion, NAE President Leith Anderson, a Minnesota megachurch pastor whose flock includes former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, reportedly insisted NAE would not explicitly advocate complete nuclear disarmament. But the new NAE stance almost certainly will be widely interpreted in that direction.
The new nuclear stance also comes in the wake of the NAE’s having joined liberal religious activist Jim Wallis’s “Circle of Protection” to protest limits on social welfare and entitlement spending. An NAE representative joined Wallis and others in a visit with President Obama during the July debt ceiling crisis that seemingly aligned NAE against Congressional Republicans. Although widely criticized outside the NAE, the “Circle of Protection” apparently was not debated at last month’s NAE board meeting, whose sessions were closed.
In special public policy briefings, the NAE board did hear from former Democratic Congressman and ambassador Tony Hall, a “Circle of Protection” supporter who conducted his own hunger fast to protest potential limits on social welfare spending. Hall reportedly expressed some chagrin that the Circle had not more effectively energized churches on federal budget issues. NAE also heard from Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, who offered a very different perspective on budget issues. Another congressional Republican, Frank Wolf, spoke to NAE about international religious liberty. On the more liberal side was Cecilia Muñoz, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, and a former senior official at National Council of La Raza. Muñoz reportedly commended NAE’s recent activism for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. NAE sponsored an October 20-22 conference for liberalized immigration policies, featuring speakers such as Jim Wallis, evangelical left activist Shane Claiborne, and more conservative voices for Comprehensive Immigration Reform such as Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.
During NAE’s October board meeting, Leith Anderson led several NAE officials to the White House to meet with President Obama, discussing immigration reform and also commending Obama for denouncing Iran’s potential death sentence for an evangelical pastor. Although they apparently discussed the threat of budget limits on social welfare spending, they did not discuss abortion. "Issues that relate to the poor we would address as pro-life issues, but it was not specifically a discussion on abortion," Anderson explained to Religion News Service (RNS). "It was not intentionally omitted. We had a limited amount of time." The same report said a "respectful disagreement" was admitted on same-sex marriage, with NAE officials defending military chaplains who disapprove of homosexual behavior. “Evangelicals have had good access to the Obama White House, at least that's my experience,” Anderson told RNS. “He clearly knows where we disagree on issues like marriage and abortion and he acknowledged that we have significant differences." Anderson was glad Obama said protecting persecuted Christians globally is a “priority.” Recalling Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech to NAE, Anderson admitted that last week’s 30 minute White House meeting was not of that “magnitude.”
Some days later, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) announced that a prominent NAE board member would become its religious outreach director. The Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins, whose hiring was announced October 20, is senior pastor of the prestigious Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, one of the largest historic black congregations in Washington, DC. In addition to serving on the NAE board, Harkins serves on an advisory board for the pro-abortion rights Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). He also serves on the board of the liberal advocacy group Faith and Public Life, funded by leftist philanthropies such as George Soros and the Tides Foundation.
Harkins is almost certainly more liberal than most NAE board members. An NAE poll of its board early this Summer showed 45 percent preferring Tim Pawlenty among the Republican hopefuls. Only 14 percent favored Romney. There apparently have been no subsequent NAE polls since Pawlenty’s withdrawal. Nor has there evidently been a poll showing NAE board members’ preference between President Obama and a Republican.
Although most of NAE’s about 100 board members likely remain conservative, though few have openly dissented from NAE’s recent stances on the environment, enhanced interrogation, immigration, budget policy or nukes. NAE’s policies are largely governed by a much smaller executive committee. Clearly NAE officials hope to retain allegiance of conservative evangelicals with traditional stances on marriage, abortion and religious persecution. Whether many evangelicals will heed NAE’s more liberal positions on other issues is an open question. As evangelicals are typically the Republican Party’s most reliable demographic, that answer potentially has implications for next year’s presidential election.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.