The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why We Fight

Given the recent discussion of politics on this blog, by all of its authors, and the upcoming Presidential election, I thought it would be fruitful to have a discussion about the how and why of evangelical political activism.  I chose a book written by Ron Sider as a jumping off point for this discussion.  His book is titled, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World?   I hope to post articles regarding this topic once a week, moving through Sider’s book.  In his first chapter, Sider sketches a brief history of evangelical activism and the need for evangelicals to develop a theology for political engagement.

While evangelicalism has its roots in the 1st Great Awakening, located geographically in Britain and the American colonies, it was during the 2nd Great Awakening in America that evangelicalism blossomed into a more recognizable form.  It was an expression of Christianity that prioritized the individual’s salvation through a conversion experience, the “giftedness” of a single, male orator as the means for spreading the gospel to the masses outside of church forms and institutions, an emphasis on and priority of scripture in its plain sense, and an activist stance towards culture.  It is this last characteristic of evangelicalism that will be our focus.

During the 19th century, the time of the 2nd Great Awakening, evangelicals were social activists, inspired by the gospel to transform the world in which they lived.  Evangelicals were a part of the abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, and the Temperance Movement.  By the turn of the century evangelicals were fully engaged in the project to reform culture through social and political activism, and many of their goals were being realized.

Then in the 1920’s the Modernist v. Fundamentalist debate dominated the cultural discussion and point of contact between evangelicals and culture.  To speak in broad terms, Fundamentalists, the group that would birth the modern evangelical movement in the aftermath of WWII, retreated from culture and political activism in reaction against Modernism.  Christians, associated with the mainline Protestant churches and Modernism, remained engaged with the cultural and politics.  As late as 1965, Jerry Falwell condemned Christian engagement with the civil rights movement, and he stated,

Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else, including fighting communism, or participating in civil rights reforms . . . Preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul winners.

In this quote Falwell reflects the dominate view of fundamentalists and lay evangelicals at the time.  Evangelicals were more Anabaptist or separatist in their approach to political cultural reform.

But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jerry Falwell has changed his thinking as he birthed a political organization called The Moral Majority.  His efforts are credited with sweeping Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980.  This was a significant turning point for evangelicals with respect to cultural engagement.  During the 1980s evangelicalism and the GOP were nearly synonymous terms.

This organization led tens of millions of evangelicals back into political engagement as a means of reforming the culture without questioning the relationship between evangelicals and the political powers, and it ultimately led to Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, the group credited with the Republican take over of Congress in 1994.  Even to this day evangelical involvement with politics is taken unquestionably as a positive form of cultural engagement, and evangelicals still are associated largely with the Republican party, although that appears to be on the wane.

While evangelical re-engagement with political and social activism was a sudden and striking historical event, the movement operated by largely intuitive and visceral impulses.  In other words, evangelicalism did not have much, if any, of a cohesive or historic intellectual tradition from which to draw and develop a theology of political engagement.  Evangelicalism stands in contrast with other Christian traditions that have long standing traditions and theologies of political engagement.

There have been a multitude of various forms of Christian engagements with culture throughout the millennia.  Richard Niebuhr’s work Christ and Culture (1951) remains the seminal study of the various forms of Christian engagement with culture.  When the evangelical “Pope,” D.A. Carson, wrote on this subject he spent significant time in his publication summarizing and critiquing Niebuhr’s work, and he titled his book Christ and Culture Revisited.  Both of these books are excellent and necessary reading for Christians that want to thoughtfully and critically engage the question of how Christians should engage culture.  What is clear from both of these books is that the “giveness” of the present relationship between evangelicals and American, political culture is not the only or even necessary Christian means of engagement.

Into this situation Ron Sider authored The Scandal of Evangelicals Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World?  Sider assumes a certain posture towards culture, namely that Christ, and His Church, should be “over” or “reform” culture.  He is not an Anabaptist, so he assumes Jesus’ Lordship over all  of creation has the necessary implication that Christians need to be involved in the project of cultural reform.  However, he laments that evangelicals, for a host of historical, sociological and theological reasons have not developed a well crafted theology of cultural engagement.  He points out that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodoxy and the Magisterial Reformers (Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, ect) have had the structural controls and historical longevity necessary to develop a theology of culture, but evangelicals have not done so, to their hurt.  In this book he calls for evangelicals to  develop a formal theological basis for their cultural activism and principles by which to discern when, where, how and why engagement is needful and helpful.

In this book he seeks to draft a proposal for evangelical, political engagement that might bear more fruit than our present method of instinctual, political engagement.  While he does come from the political left, he is not seeking to argue for specific policy positions that Christians “ought” to take, but he wants to establish principles by which Christians of the left and right may discern how and why political engagement is necessary.  He wants to develop a rubric by which evangelicals can understand and explain why at times they call for Federal action, as in the case for a Marriage Amendment, and at other times they call for Federal action to cease, as in the case of gun regulations.  He does not deny that there may be valid theological reasons for this type of “picking and choosing,” but he wants to establish a theological rationale for doing so.

While we as evangelicals tend to take our values from scripture, do we seek to transcend the vocabulary, grammar and paradigms of political engagement  that we inherit from the political culture by use of scripture?

Is an evangelical theology of culture even possible given the diversity of the movement and the lack of institutional control over the movement?

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15 Responses to The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why We Fight

  1. G Snyder says:

    You’re giving credit for the Regan victory over Carter to Falwell’s Moral Majority? And the 1994 takeover to Pat Robertson?

    I’d have to argue their ‘primary’ roles in both of those victories… Not your point, I know–but it stuck out at me.

  2. One minor issue. According to the most recent Lifeway Research polling, 70% of Evangelicals currently identify themselves primarily as Republican. So to say that this trend is on the wane is somewhat misleading. Furthermore, it should also be noted that in the Carter era, most Evangelicals openly identified as Democrats. [1] So the switch from one party to another is largely credited to the influence of Falwell and Robertson and their respective organizations.
    * * * * * * * * * *

    [1] It should be noted that this assertion is based upon a lecture I once heard Dr. Bud Kelstedt of Wheaton College give in a class on American politics. I do not have his source, and didn’t take the time to dig it up.

    • G Snyder says:

      Well–that amazes me. I won’t argue. I just never saw those dudes as all that influential. They had a following, but I would have never dreamed to credit them with Reagan’s victory, or the ’94 take-over. Carter was a terrible, awful, pathetically bad president. I just thought the American public knew suck when they saw it. And as for the ’94 take-over, I always credited that to the anger and disgust of losing ’92 to Clinton, as the conservative vote was split between Bush 1 and Perot.

      • Greg … Like I said in my comment, I haven’t gone looking for research to substantiate Dr. Kellstedt’s claim. Having said that, his entire career centered on studying evangelicals and American politics. He was doing a fair amount of research with profs from other institutions outside of Wheaton, so I have little reason to doubt his claims.

    • I would intuitively guess that 70% is down from previous decades. I am thinking about the Barna research that points out the increase in political apathy among evangelicals.

    • I’m gonna stir the pot on this one, but it is a fact that in the mid 70s, Republicans weren’t nearly as much Evangelical…and there was a discussion as to how to get them to be the base of the party, and that was when, in order to get Evangelical votes, the Republican party adopted the Pro-Life platform.

  3. With regards to your second question, I think Miroslav Volf (author of the highly regarded Exclusion and Embrace). is trying to do something like this on Facebook. He’s trying to put together a list of theological “values” that would govern our political engagement. In other words, he’s trying to get behind the theological “cherry picking” that goes on in Evangelical political engagement and he’s trying to establish a paradigm that would govern our engagement.

    • I’ll need to look for that on FB; I am skeptical that an “evangelical” anything can be constructed due to the inability to define and regulate that term. But, possibly worth trying.

  4. Eric T. S. Rowe says:

    Enjoyed the post. Got me thinking and studying about something that I had been wresting with for a while.

    A few quotes that help articulate my worldview on this subject. It is complete reversal of my views from my high school years to mid-twenties.

    “A politicized faith not only blurs our priorities, but weakens our loyalties. Our primary citizenship is not on earth but in heaven. … Though few evangelicals would deny this truth in theory, the language of our spiritual citizenship frequently gets wrapped in the red, white and blue. Rather than acting as resident aliens of a heavenly kingdom, too often we sound [and act] like resident apologists for a Christian America. … Unless we reject the false reliance on the illusion of Christian America, evangelicalism will continue to distort the gospel and thwart a genuine biblical identity…..American evangelicalism is now covered by layers and layers of historically shaped attitudes that obscure our original biblical core. (The Evangelical Pulpit by John Steale [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993], 106-7)”

    “By means of faithful preaching and godly living, believers are to be the conscience of whatever nation they reside in. You can confront the culture not with the political and social activism of man’s wisdom, but with the spiritual power of God’s Word. Using temporal methods to promote legislative and judicial change, and resorting to external efforts of lobbying and intimidation to achieve some sort of “Christian morality” in society is not our calling–and has no eternal value. Only the gospel rescues sinners from sin, death, and hell.” John MacArthur

    Our calling is not to develop a theology for political engagement. Our calling is to evangelize and the New Testament instructs us on how to do that. You look at when Paul went into the cultures that were almost if not entirely pagan. Paul and the early church did not set out to impact the culture or to get the nations to adopt a politically Christian agenda. The early church only had one purpose and that was to reach the world with the gospel for the glory of Christ. The church today needs to return to teaching and understanding sound doctrine through clear biblical exposition and individual study so that we the Church are equipped to fulfill that purposes. We are not going to change the culture through passing the marriage amendment or fighting to deny this right or that right. Any attempt to change the culture through these external means is futile. Only when we preach the gospel does it change a man’s heart.

    • Interesting. These quotes are definitely sounding an Anabaptist note or the trumpet of fundamentalist retreat.

      • Eric T. S. Rowe says:

        I prefer to think of it not as Anabaptist or fundamentalist but as a Christian trying to understand what the New Testament taught us on how to live for Christ in an increasingly pagan culture. Further, when I hear the word retreat I think of quitting or ceding from a certain position. You might be correct in the scope of political discourse, but the hope is that this view does not cause a retreat but is a sounding of the trumpet to rally the Church to be what the Church is called to be in this world. The result being that the world is transformed for Christ negating the need to engage this part of the culture or that part of the culture.

  5. Jeff C. says:

    Random thoughts here…

    1) Most Christians nowadays do not have a clear view of the doctrine of the two kingdoms (earth in the left-hand, heaven in the right-hand). Because of this, they confuse the two. And it shows up in how they vote. Many of these Christians are under the false assumption that America is a Christian nation. Hard to call America a Christian nation when God does not audibly tell you that you are as he did with the nation of Israel (sorry gang).

    2) I do want to commend some of these Christian leaders mentioned above who have tried to stem the tide of moral anarchy. Where they failed is that they tried to further the cause of moral conservatism without stressing the gospel first. Even Christians fail morally too. One doesn’t need to look hard to figure this out.

    3) One disturbing trend I see is that Evangelicals are also aligning themselves with anyone who bear the name “christian” and yet hold to abhorrent doctrines is proving even more dangerous.

    Case and point:
    a) David Barton (the supposed historian) embracing Glenn Beck as a “brother” and doing rallies to reclaim America for a more socially conservative agenda.

    b) The National Day of Prayer task force holding a prayer event at the church of Rodney Howard Browne (a known Word of Faith teacher) that will also feature leaders from IHOP and the New Apostolic Reformation.

    Evangelicals have lost their ability to define their theological distinctives for fear of excluding those outside of their camp. There is nothing inherently wrong with aligning with JWs, Mormons, RCs and the like in light of many moral and social issues. This does not mean that I should fellowship and do prayer rallies with them. This cuts to the core to my belief in the one true God and I need to hold firm to what Scripture says in the matter of worship and fellowship.

    4) I understand in this day and age that it is hard to know what is going on politically with such much fighting for our attention. I just want to encourage those who read this blog (and any other blog site out there) to take time to start to understand some of the issues and not vote blindly. Finding out who your local representatives are in your district is a huge step in the right direction.

  6. Doug Hayes says:

    Guys – Just a general comment / thought. I follow conservative politics primarily through the magazine National Review. I have to believe their late founder Bill Buckley would cringe to hear Falwell credited for Reagan’s presidency. He and Reagan were fast friends and close until Reagan’s passing. Buckley’s efforts in the 60’s and 70’s did much to enliven the conservative position which had become dormant during the mid century. I would have to agree with the idea that Falwell’s influence didn’t stretch much beyond his natural boundaries – in this case Christianity would be a subset of conservative politics leading up to 1980,

    • Hey Doug, Good to see you here again, and thanks for the clarification. I did not mean to imply, as my words do, that evangelicals were solely responsible for his election in 1980, but they were a necessary component. In the previous election many evangelicals voted for Jimmy Carter, the Democrat. You probably recall his use of the term “born-again” to describe his religious affiliation, and more famously, he said that he had committed “lust in his heart” with his interview with Playboy magazine. Anyway, the 1980 election is considered the moment when evangelicals were, in mass, converted to Republicanism and baptized in the right side of the Potomac River.

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