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March 11, 2000
Column #967


      WASHINGTON -- A new National Association of Evangelicals gathered here this week.  Its new president, Free Methodist Bishop Kevin Mannoia, 44, has already moved NAE's headquarters from Wheaton, IL, where it was founded in 1941, to the Los Angeles area.

     ''We are committed to the mission of engaging and transforming our culture,'' says Mannoia. ''If there is a place that signals what America will become it is the Los Angeles area. It has within its context, the issues of urbanization, globalization, multi-ethnicity. We want to establish an advocacy presence in Hollywood as we have one in Washington. We are bringing the voice of 30 million people to the table. We can have a powerful effect on shaping the culture.''

     The several hundred attendees at the NAE included a wider range of ages than in past years because Mannoia challenged its 51 different denominational heads to bring young leaders.

     Participants were also much more multiethnic. AMEN (Alianza de Ministerios Evangelicos Nacionales), an alliance of Hispanic leaders from thousands of churches, held its own summit with the NAE, thanks in part to John Mendez, a new NAE vice president.

     For the first time, NAE's chairman is an African-American, Ed Foggs, whose term as General Secretary of the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.), just ended.

     In his latest book, ''Surveying the Religious Landscape,'' George Gallup, Jr. (and D. Michael Lindsay), reports ''Nearly four in ten adults (39 percent) claim to be evangelical believers.'' By Gallup's definition, a born-again or evangelical Christian ''believes the Bible is the actual Word of God, has experienced personal conversion, and seeks to lead non-Christians to conversion.''

     While evangelicals are America's largest Christian group, only 30 million Americans are in the 45,000 churches affiliated with the NAE. That is likely to change. Charismatics are now welcome and the newest group to affiliate is the rapidly growing Vineyard Christian Fellowships.

     The NAE also removed a restrictive rule that prohibited a denomination from having a ''dual membership'' with another umbrella group, such as its liberal foe, the National Council of Churches. The Reformed Church in America, an NCC affiliate, has petitioned the NAE for membership. All of the African American denominations in the NCC are similarly evangelical.

     So is the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant church in the nation.

     However, Mannoia insists that the reason to drop the dual membership rule was not to increase the size of NAE's membership. ''It is a statement that the NAE is mature enough to have the confidence in the center to take down the demarcating lines. While our heritage has served us well, where there is vibrant health, we don't need to be afraid of who is in our circle.''

     Politically, most evangelicals are conservative. Yet in this primary season, their political interests have been poorly understood by both George W. Bush and John McCain.

     Rich Cizik, NAE Vice President for Governmental Affairs, could not understand why Bush would even visit the fundamentalist Bob Jones University ''and damage himself'' with evangelicals who are allied with Catholics on many moral issues and believe deeply in racial reconciliation. Similarly, McCain's charges that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are ''evil'' was self-destructive, a signal to many evangelicals that he could not be trusted.

     A survey of 425 NAE national leaders turned up some surprises. Less than a tenth had become as disillusioned as Cal Thomas with the political process to believe that evangelicals should ''withdraw from politics'' for soul-winning. Nearly half felt evangelicals should stay focused on politics, while two-fifths believe they should engage in politics and faith matters.

     When asked if evangelicals should aim to change individual hearts or social institutions, the former option was preferred to the latter (30 percent to 6), but two-thirds argued for both.

     While many believe the largely white NAE leadership is 99 percent Republican, a third identify themselves as Democrats or Independents. More than nine out of ten NAE leaders believe abortion should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest or the life of the mother, but they are evenly divided on a constitutional amendment for school prayer and two-thirds do not believe immigration is a problem.

     To improve society, Mannoia believes conservative Protestantism need to ''get its hands dirty,'' rather than decrying moral evils or ''circling our wagons into a nice holy huddle.'' He says ''The kingdom of God is not to overpower, push aside, or agitate, but we are to be the salt and light. We must become serious about transforming culture.''

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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