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?