A columnist for The New York Times has issued a plea to the paper's generally liberal readership to refrain from feelings of scorn for religious conservatives, saying they're one group unfairly omitted from the embrace of trademark liberal tolerance.

Christian evangelicals "constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock," wrote Nicholas D. Kristof in early February.

"Scorning people for their faith is intrinsically repugnant, and in this case it also betrays a profound misunderstanding of how far evangelicals have moved over the last decade. Today, conservative Christian churches do superb work on poverty, AIDS, sex trafficking, climate change, prison abuses, malaria and genocide in Darfur."

"Bleeding-heart liberals could accomplish far more if they reached out to build common cause with bleeding-heart conservatives," he said, noting Barack Obama's appeal to evangelical voters.

Kristof claims that social justice issues have risen to the top of the evangelical agenda over the past few decades, many religious conservatives have become "powerful internationalists and humanitarians" and liberals "haven't awakened to the transformation."

He said a recent CBS poll showed that white Christians identified fighting poverty as their top priority, with fighting abortion "a distant second."

Kristof blasts Catholic leaders "for their hostility toward condoms," repeating claims that the Church has undermined the fight against AIDS in Africa (but see Page 3 story).

"But while robust criticism is fair," he said, "scorn is not."

The columnist tells of his admiration for a Polish Catholic nun he came across in war-torn Congo, running a Church clinic.

"Unlike the religious right windbags, she was passionately 'pro-life' even for those already born -- and brave souls like her are increasingly representative of religious conservatives. We can disagree sharply with their politics, but to mock them underscores our own ignorance and prejudice," Kristof said.