WASHINGTON — You know the religious right is in trouble when some of its leaders threaten to bolt the Republican Party if it nominates a candidate who supports abortion rights.

But the well-publicized warning directed against Rudy Giuliani earlier this month is decidedly not the most important sign that religious conservatives are facing the disintegration of their movement.

What matters more is that a new generation of evangelical leaders, tired of the rancid partisanship, is breaking away from the culture wars. The reach of this new evangelical politics will be tested this week with the release on Wednesday of a statement under the very biblical title, “Come Let Us Reason Together.” The question for the future is how many in the evangelical ranks will embrace this call?

Organized by Third Way, a group that is close to many leading moderate Democrats, the statement calls for “first steps toward bridging the cultural divide between progressives and evangelicals.”

Third Way’s effort is not happy boilerplate about how religious Americans and liberals share a concern for helping the poor, protecting the environment and reaching out to the victims of AIDS — although these areas of agreement are important and too often overlooked.

Rather, the statement, co-authored by Robert P. Jones, a progressive religious scholar, and Rachel Laser, director of The Third Way Culture Project, takes a step toward religious conservatives by acknowledging the legitimacy of many of their moral concerns.

For example, while not backing away from Third Way’s support for stem cell research, the statement urges a series of restrictions to prevent the sale or manipulation of human embryos and reproductive cloning.

“Americans have a deep faith in science, but also worry that scientific advances are outrunning our best moral thinking,” Jones and Laser declare. Worrying about ethical issues raised by science is not the same as being anti-science.

The statement identifies other areas, including abortion, gay rights and strengthening families, where progressives and religious conservatives might continue to disagree but still make progress.

One passage nicely summarizes the possibilities of a less polarized, post-Bush future: “The differences in how evangelicals and progressives see government’s role in affecting social change — one of changing hearts, the other building institutions — need not be in conflict.” Social improvement requires both.

Now declarations and manifestoes come and go in our nation’s capital with the speed of the news cycle. What matters is whether they can catalyze action.

Laser, who sets herself only a modest goal — “We want to end the culture wars,” she says firmly, but with a smile — knows this, which is why she worked to win support for the statement from evangelicals who can fairly be regarded as conservative.

One of the most interesting is the Rev. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Fla. In 2006, Hunter was slated to become the head of the Christian Coalition. He wanted to broaden the group’s agenda to include questions such as the environment and poverty. That turned out to be a deal-breaker.

“‘These are fine issues, but they’re not our issues,'” Hunter recalls being told. He says this without bitterness, and insisted in an interview that liberals and conservative evangelicals could work together where they agree without compromising their core principles.

“We don’t all have to fit in a label,” he says. “God does not see the world in terms of liberals or conservatives.”

A fine sentiment, but how can progressives and conservative evangelicals work together on issues such as abortion and gay rights? Here, Hunter gets very specific.

“I am pro-life, and since I believe that what is in the womb is a baby, I would be excited if Roe v. Wade were overturned,” he says. “But that is not what I spend my time on. What if we could save babies who would be aborted … if we gave help to low-income women who want to carry their babies to term? They really don’t have a choice. The old ways of encouraging the reduction of abortion, the strident ways, aren’t productive.”

Hunter is opposed to gay marriage, yet he believes that “honoring human dignity and protecting committed relationships” requires recognition of “the basic human rights” of gay and lesbian couples. That doesn’t settle the gay marriage issue, but it would lead to a more — dare one use the word? — Christian approach to a matter that has bred so much anger.

I’m not sure Laser will get her wish about ending the culture wars. But Americans are so tired of being on a political and cultural road to nowhere that her hope seems almost realistic.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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