For much of the last century, America’s evangelicals have been the whipping boy of progressives and intellectuals of all sorts. Ostensibly, they use government to impose their interpretation of Scripture on the body politic and – paradoxical to this heavy use of the state – champion neo-liberal economics and Tea Party style small government.
This was never quite the story, and is even less so since 2005, when America’s religio-political landscape has been undergoing what evangelical theologian Scot McKnight called “the biggest change in the evangelical movement at the end of the twentieth century, a new kind of Christian social conscience.”
“New evangelicals” (as Richard Cizik, President of The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, calls them) have shifted away from the religious right – moving towards an anti-militarist, anti-consumerist focus on poverty relief, environmental protection, immigration reform, and racial/religious reconciliation.
The religious right remains, but where there was the appearance of a seemingly monovocal movement there is now robust polyphony.
Robert, for instance, is the PR director of a southern megachurch. He has no cross in his office, but rather a large poster of Barack Obama along with Captain Kirk screensavers, framed vintage SciFi magazines and books on philosophy and theology. His church spends $1.5 million each year on social justice projects.
Across the country, the “Introduction to our Community” DVD at a midwestern megachurch talks about one of the church’s first members, a post-op trans-sexual. That church’s social programming addresses substance abuse, orphans, the homeless, free food and clothing distribution, care for the elderly and the deaf, prison ministries, building affordable housing, and projects overseas on environmental protection, disease reduction, and education.
Crossing the country again, Randall Balmer, an editor at Christianity Today, lambastes the religious right: “The evangelical faith that nurtured me as a child and sustains me as an adult has been hijacked by right-wing zealots …”
Back in the Midwest, the Rev. Greg Boyd writes, “I believe a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry,” worshipping political wins rather than Jesus’ teachings.
And crossing the country again, an Iowa office worker (and evangelical) told me, “You know, ‘If you give a person a fish, he’ll eat for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he’ll eat for his whole life.’ But what if they don’t have rights to use the stream, and what if the stream is polluted? … [W]e have to deal with pollution, sustainability, poverty, education, and information together. There is no ‘they’ and ‘us’; there is just ‘we’.”
New evangelicals” will be quick to tell you (correctly) that these efforts are not new, but are consistent with long evangelical tradition. It stresses the search for an “inner” relationship with Jesus; the cross as a symbol of service, sacrifice and salvation; individual responsibility to develop a system of moral conduct; individualist Bible reading by ordinary men and woman; and the priesthood of all believers.
The individualist emphasis made American evangelicals anti-elitist, anti-authoritarian, staunch defenders of freedom of conscience, economically populist (anti-banker, anti-landlord) and socially activist on behalf of the common man.
Ante-bellum, they established many of the civil society associations that built the country. Up through the early 20th century, they fought for labour against the laissez-faire capitalism and supported William Jennings Bryan three times for president on a pro-worker, pro-farmer platform (in 1896, 1900 and 1908).
Twice in the 20th century, evangelicals turned towards conservatism. The second time, in the 1960s, was a response to what they felt was the moral cowardice of the anti-Vietnam-war protests and the self-indulgence of the Civil Rights and anti-poverty programs, which in their view gave “handouts” to the needy rather than promoted self-sufficiency.
Then came the flamboyant hippies and yippies. By the 1970s, evangelicals joined with the Republicans to return the nation to what they saw as its ethical and political responsibilities.
Today’s “new evangelicals” have shifted neither in theology nor in emphasis on anti-authoritarian, self-reliant activism. But their goals have broadened. One reason is generational, with idealistic younger evangelicals rejecting the religious-right, prosperity-gospel politics of their parents.
Another is that since the 1960s, views about sex, the environment, and global connectedness have changed; to many, the religious right, in the “middle” 35 years ago, feels out-of-touch today.
This feeling has been furthered by the de-professionalization of overseas missions and the significant increase in participation by people in the pews. Overall, it has made them more sophisticated about life’s complexities. Specifically, the poverty and violence in the developing world has moved many to see this as their service priority, rather than, say, gay civil unions.
Still another reason is ethics amid a group that takes ethics seriously. The militarism and torture of the Bush years – and their rejection by evangelical youth – have prodded many evangelicals to re-examine the wisdom of being in government, by definition human and faulty, as the way to further the Kingdom.
Three key features characterize current “new evangelical” activism.
First is embrace of church-state separation to ensure fair government and freedom of conscience. “Let it be known unequivocally,” declared the 2008 Evangelical Manifesto , signed by over 70 evangelical leaders, “we are firmly opposed to the imposition of theocracy on our pluralistic society.”
In 2009, in response to Obama’s inclusion of atheists in his speeches, Richard Land, president of the Commission on Ethics and Religious Liberty of the relatively conservative Southern Baptist Convention, said, “We are a very pluralistic nation.”
Second is activism in civil society, through public education, lobbying, coalition-building, and negotiation. “In a democracy, nobody wins all the time … I don’t win all the time and neither do you.” That’s Rick Warren, who gave the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. “I believe in the common good,” he continues, “and that there are some issues that have to be dealt with, with everybody.”
Indeed, “new evangelicals” have not retreated into homogeneous cul de sacs, but are disproportionately involved with the common good. The National Association of Evangelicals’ (NAE) 2004 position paper, For the Health of the Nation , calls for a fair legal and economic system “which does not tolerate perpetual poverty.” This requires not only alms-giving but structural improvements in health care, education, monetary support for the needy and immigration reform.
At the large, para-church level, World Vision aids one hundred million people in nearly one hundred countries, with an annual revenues of $2.6 billion from governmental and private sources, including donations from 4.7 million Americans. Its micro-credit program supports over 440,000 projects in forty-six developing countries.
Yet much of this work, domestically and abroad, is done by local church volunteers, who raise the funds as well. Shane Claiborne – the Elvis of younger evangelicals – founded the Simple Way community in Philadelphia, which helps organize “the Christian underground” – from those who renovate abandoned homes for the needy to engineers who build unofficial generators in poor areas.
Rick Warren’s P.E.A.C.E. program links first-world churches with sister churches in developing regions. While there was only one doctor in a mountainous region of Rwanda, Warren explains, there were “826 congregations. Now, where would you like to get your meds distributed? [A hospital] two days’ walk, [a clinic] one day’s walk, or five minutes away?”
In the controversial area of overseas missions, “new evangelicals” are developing a nuanced critique of the “Bibles for bacon” school of evangelizing, where participation in religious activities was a condition of aid. This is unacceptable not least because it is un-Jesus-like. The obligation is on Christians to serve, not on aid recipients to believe one thing or another.
The head of overseas missions at a large midwestern church put it this way, “I’ve dug thirty foot water wells with guys who didn’t believe what I do, and I love those guys. If God wants to use me to change their belief, that’s fine. If not, then heck, we dug a well.”
The third feature of “new evangelical” politics is critique of government when they believe it is unjust. Taking all governments to be fallen, vulnerable to human greed and corruption, “new evangelicals” understand the vigilance needed to keep governments honest. The church thus has a “prophetic role” – not to be government but to “speak truth to power.”
Since 2006, weekly church-going correlates not only with opposition to abortion and gay marriage but also with the preference for diplomacy over military strength. In 2007, the NAE, against the Bush administration, issued An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture , and against many Republicans, called for immigration reform.
If one wants to criticize the government, one must be independent of it. While evangelicals used to be considered uniformly the Republican party at prayer, in 2005, the influential Christianity Today rejected the conflation of Biblical truths with American or Republican values.
The 2008 Evangelical Manifesto was bolder still. It called on evangelicals to distance themselves from party politics, lest “Christians become ‘useful idiots’ for one political party or another.” In the 2008 presidential campaign, evangelical PACs, like the Matthew 25 Network, formed to support Obama.
This growing political independence poses a conundrum for many “new evangelicals.” Opposition to abortion along with traditional preference for self-reliance move them Republican – though they may not agree with that party’s position on the environment or economic fairness.
Richard Land has said, “If that issue [abortion] were taken off the table, then other issues get oxygen, issues where evangelicals are not nearly as certain that Republicans offer the best answer. Issues like economic justice, racial reconciliation, the environment.”
In social service work, party ambivalence is less of a problem because “new evangelicals,” like other citizens, consider issues on a case-by-case basis: more Democrat on the environment, more Republican on abortion, more independent on the economy. Yet in voting, where one chooses along party lines, tensions arise.
This means that millions of “new evangelicals” don’t have a candidate in the coming 2012 election. These “values” voters oppose abortion, support environmental protection and fight poverty. Who is out there representing that?
Some evangelicals, like the New Evangelicals Partnership for the Common Good, suggest that this could be resolved through a rigorous program of abortion reduction. And that is a political game-changer. As 73% of abortions in the United States are economically motivated, abortion would drop significantly if medical, financial and emotional support were provided during pregnancy, with day care added post-partum.
Moreover, if evangelicals, secularists and feminists worked together on abortion reduction, relationships would form, and the polarization of the “culture wars” would hopefully diminish.
If this were the case, abortion, as Land said, would find itself increasingly “off the table,” no longer the vote-cementer between evangelicals and the Republican party.
Nan, our Iowa office worker in Iowa, explains it this way, “I’m pro-life [against abortion]. But a lot of people are being killed every day, living children, women, and men. So abortion isn’t the only issue of murder. That’s why I’m a Democrat.”
Marcia Pally’s latest book is The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good. She teaches Multilingual Multicultural Studies at New York University.