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One Lord, one faith, one baptism? Political differences among evangelicals worldwide

Published: Friday, March 2 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Sarah Taylor sat peacefully in the sanctuary of Coram Deo church in Eagle Mountain, Utah, normally a place of clarity and not confusion. The church's name, meaning "before the face of God," describes how Taylor tries to make her decisions — comfortable before his face. Worshipping with the family she lived with the Sunday following the 2008 presidential election, 13-year-old Toddy asked Taylor about one of those decisions.

"She asked who I voted for, and I told her I voted Democrat," Taylor reflected. "Then she just kind of laughed and said, 'Come on, who did you really vote for?'"

Noticing the confusion Toddy was experiencing, Taylor explained to Toddy that her Christian upbringing motivates her to vote Democrat, because of Jesus' teachings to care for the poor and love all people. She said her evangelical upbringing taught her to support people throughout all their lives, and "not just before they were born."

"We ended up talking about it for two hours and then for the next two years," Taylor said.

Toddy's confusion over Taylor's political decisions is no surprise in the United States, where terms like "religious right" and "moral majority" are used to characterize the socially conservative evangelical Christian base. Based on data compiled by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 77 percent of Caucasian born-again Christians voted for a Republican candidate in the 2010 midterm elections.

However, some argue there are major political differences among evangelicals inside and outside of the United States. Despite the Bible's claim of "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4: 5), the interpretation of that faith mobilizes some, like Taylor, to positions that may seem inconsistent with commonly perceived evangelical behaviors.

Paul Freston, CIGI Chair for Religion and Politics in Global Context at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University, emphasizes this sentiment. Having done research on evangelicals all around the globe, Freston says the perceived uniformity of those characterized as evangelicals can be misleading.

"In the work I've done with evangelicals and politics around the world, I've always tried to emphasize their variety," Freston says. "Sometimes you get scholars or analysts who try to pigeonhole evangelicalism politically. What one sees around the world doesn't really support that. There is such a diversity within countries, and there is also a tremendous diversity between countries as well."

In his work, Freston quotes historian David Bebbington's four emphases to describe evangelical theologically: conversionism (need for change of life), activism (evangelistic efforts), Biblicism (special importance to the Bible, though not necessarily the fundamentalist idea of 'inerrancy') and crucicentrism (centrality of Christ's sacrifice on the cross).

However, he points out, the political stances and sway of evangelicals varies greatly on the political system of which they are a part.

"There are tendencies toward more democratic ideals because evangelicalism is voluntaristic and pluralistic, so it tends to strengthen civil society," Freston says. "But sometimes its direct political action is far more controversial, notably in Brazil, where there's been controversy surrounding very narrow political agendas seeking to strengthen church institutions and not really a political agenda for society at large."

Matt Marostica of the Stanford library has studied comparative politics, specifically the intersection of religion and politics in Latin America. He draws attention to the fact that a major difference between evangelicals in the United States and those of Latin America is this focus of political energy on strengthening church institutions, which puts evangelicals in a more progressive political role.

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