When President George W. Bush appeared at the White House on Monday, flanked by the presidents of five African nations, Brian McLaren -- the pastor of an evangelical Christian church in suburban Maryland -- expected to hear at least one reference to the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.
He was disappointed, though not surprised, to see Bush deliver brief remarks that made no mention of what he regards as the world's most pressing humanitarian crisis and to see the five African presidents ushered from the stage without an opportunity to speak. McLaren is one of many evangelicals in the United States who are increasingly disillusioned by the disconnect between the Bush administration's public embrace of religion -- particularly evangelical Christianity -- and its failure to act on many issues that would appear to demand a response from anyone professing Christian beliefs.
“Well over a year ago, I remember hearing conversations about Darfur, and the word ‘genocide' was used; but it seems to me that the issue just about disappeared from public consciousness for months,” said McLaren. “I know that the administration backed off from using the word ‘genocide.'”
Instead, said McLaren, while between 200,000 and 300,000 additional victims were slaughtered in Darfur, the most highly visible leaders of American evangelicals seemed increasingly caught up in shrill debates about gay marriage and other largely political issues. “I think the religious community is being manipulated by political forces that profit by dividing the electorate and shaving off a few percentage points here and there,” he said
In both religion and politics right now, he said, “there is this kind of polarization over liberal and conservative stuff. And I just thought this is absolutely crazy. We're paralyzed over here about certain issues while hundreds of thousands of people are dying.”
According to McLaren, issues like the ongoing genocide in Darfur are causing many evangelical Christians to question the priorities of their most visible national leaders.
“I think we are realizing that the religious right has dominated the evangelical world, but increasing numbers of evangelicals are saying they don't speak for us,” he said. “We have a lot of people talking about religious values, but let's put that into action.”
McLaren has begun to try to put his concern for Darfur into action by organizing a series of public worship services (called Worship in the Spirit of Justice) on five consecutive Sundays in Washington. He has teamed up with Sojourners, a Washington-based evangelical ministry dedicated to social justice, and several other religious organizations to draw attention to the U.S. government's inaction in Darfur.
The group's first gathering, held Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial, drew 250 people, despite intense heat and humidity. The location was intended to invoke Lincoln's connection to the causes of freedom and liberation.
On the following four Sundays, however, the settings become less symbolic and more designed to shame particular people and institutions into acting to stop the genocide in Darfur.
On June 19, the service will be held at the U.S. Capitol reflecting pool, as a message to Congress that American lawmakers should no longer be allowed to ignore the slaughter in Darfur.
“The focus there is to say that we need members of Congress to get serious about passing legislation that will help Darfur,” said McLaren, noting that there is a “disappointingly short list of representatives and senators” who have spoken out on the issue.
The penultimate service will take place on July 3 in Sheridan Circle -- directly across the street from the Sudanese embassy.
The fifth and final gathering will be held in Lafayette Park, just across the street from the White House, where, according to promotional materials, the group “pray for our President and urge him to provide moral leadership regarding Darfur. We will recall President Clinton's words about our failure to intervene in Rwanda eleven years ago; we will challenge President Bush not to let the genocide in Darfur continue on his watch.”
McLaren said that some members of the group are considering some sort of civil disobedience, such as gathering on the sidewalk in front of the White House to pray “for movement and a sense of moral compulsion in our political readers to take some action, and to go beyond doing a little less than the bare minimum.”
He hopes the turnout at the services will grow each week, as participants spread the word and as other churches send delegations. And in his kickoff sermon Sunday, McLaren gave voice to the anger that he hopes will motivate that participation.
“We fight about whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in front of buildings, but we fail to live out the Ten Commandments in relation to our suffering neighbors,” he said. “We're here today, and we will gather for the coming five Sundays, to say that this division and paralysis are unacceptable to us. We are tired of being divided over trivialities; we believe it is time to come together over an emergency.”
Rob Garver is a freelance journalist living in Springfield, Va.