Next Wednesday, on March 9th, the National Association of Evangelicals will hold their annual convention in Washington, D.C., during which they will officially release their long-discussed guidelines for evangelical political engagement, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” The guidelines prompted a lot of excitement last June, when reporters and liberal pundits misread a draft version of the document as signalling a more progressive evangelical politics, more focussed on poverty than culture war. In October, a revised version of the guidelines stripped away or dulled much of the language or provisions that could have been seen as progressive. Now, on the eve of their debut (released simultaneously with a collection of essays, Toward an Evangelical Public Policy), Rob Garver of The American Prospect suggests that the real story of the guidelines’ release is not its policy content so much as the announced arrival of a mighty political power.

Garver’s not fear-mongering though: He’d like liberals to see the guidelines as an opportunity. He describes the NAE as middle-of-the-road and the guidelines as well-vetted and compatible with liberal positions on war and the environment, and he preemptively chastises the left for reacting to these “politically active evangelicals” with hostility or mistrust. That would be a mistake, he writes, because as large a political force as evangelicals are now, only half of them are voting; Democrats would do well to try wooing as many of them away from the Republicans as possible. So while Garver acknowledges that the NAE’s opposition to abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage is unmistakable, he sees signs of evangelicals dissatisfied with the current Republican ownership of “morality.” But for Garver, that dissatisfaction is neither spiritual nor theological; he understands it as political, and thus concludes that the evangelical vote is a kind of prize for progressives to win by way of other issues.

We talked about just this last June, when the draft was first floated, and it appeared that few commentators had taken the time to read it. Then, as now, the suggestion of evangelicals turning to Democrats seemed like a siren song, tempting liberals to compromise on the culture-war issues for the sake of the larger cause. Now, as then, we suggest reading the fine print: the NAE guideline’s positions on abortion and gay marriage aren’t just clear, they’re uncompromisable, so — according to the guidelines — any biblical appeals for peace won’t register unless the candidate, or party, making them has already dispensed with those pesky liberal positions on reproductive freedom and equal rights.

It’s important, also, to understand that the NAE is an association of denominations and organizations with different views. While progressive economic ideas may have enough support to win a place at the table for Ron Sider, an evangelical critic of laissez-faire economics, they aren’t championed by the majority of the the NAE’s members, which are culturally and historically committed to a worldview centered on individual rights as more important than the collective good. So forget about labor law, and say hello to “free trade.” If progressives want to win the evangelical vote, they’ll have to give not only on abortion and gay rights, but also on the economic values they assumed were spiritually neutral.

It’s no criticism of the NAE to say that to its members, nothing is spiritually neutral. The only principles are biblical, and compromising on them is sin. And that’s a principle secular progressives just don’t understand. As a result, pessimists view the Christian right, and the NAE, as purely political entities, and miscalculate accordingly. Meanwhile, optimists such as Garver grasp for common ground that doesn’t exist. Secular progressives and evangelical conservatives will, on occasion, share the same positions; but they’ll never agree on the meaning of the terms. “Freedom,” to a secularist progressive, refers to an ideal relationship with the state; to an evangelical conservative, it’s a condition won only through the gospel. “Poverty,” to a secularist, is a materialistic fact; to an evangelical conservative, it’s a spiritual reality. Go on down the list of shared values and you’ll encounter as many differing definitions.

“Understanding” evangelicals is a good goal for progressives and the secular press alike. But that understanding won’t come about through the search for common ground, which is, after all, a narcissistic kind of outreach, an attempt to “see” evangelicals only when they agree with your politics or your terms of journalism. People for whom everything is as spiritual as it is mundane don’t allow for such neutral overlaps. The NAE’s motto is “cooperation without compromise.” The reality of that “cooperation,” for leftists and journalists who hear the words but not the meanings, is dialogue without translation.

Kathryn Joyce & Jeff Sharlet