America’s ”New Evangelicals”: Emissaries for the Common Good

America’s ”New Evangelicals”: Emissaries for the Common Good

By Marcia Pally

Published in Die Welt, Oct. 19, 2010

 In public discussion today, religion is a sorry sight, linked to fundamentalism, terrorism, and benighted threats to democracy. This is just what Europe’s Enlightenment predicted in its thriller-theory of modern history: nefarious religion tries to kidnap the Infanta Democracy who is saved by the Knight of Secularization, which ensures rational, modern life. Twentieth century secularization theory added science to suspicion of religion and declared that modernization ensured “disenchantment,” in Weber’s famous phrase: as societies moved “forward,” faith would fade.

To be sure, Enlightenment suspicion of religion made sense. European church and state elites had long had joint economic and political interests against the lower estate. Europe’s democratizers responded to oppression from above with a double attack: against the aristocracies and against their handshake with the official churches. While the development of democracy differs across Europe, by the 18th century, the idea that religion was irrational and an inhibitor of democracy had entered Europe’s cultural currents.

Yet today we have 600 million Buddhists, 800 million Hindus, 1.5 billion Muslims, and 2.3 billion Christians. If faith is incompatible with liberal democracy, then the prognosis for democracy is bleak. Rather than assume that secularization is a universal requirement, perhaps there are examples where religious life and liberal democracy are vibrant.

One, perhaps unexpectedly, is America’s evangelicals—specifically those who have broadened their priorities towards an anti-militarist, anti-consumerist activism. While weekly churchgoing correlates with opposition to abortion and gay marriage, since 2006 it has also correlated with environmental protection, aid to the needy, and belief in diplomacy over military strength to ensure peace. Neither fundamentalist nor theocratic, these evangelicals have moved away especially from Religious Right tendencies to impose their view of Scripture on the body politic through the state.

“New evangelicals,” as they are called, range across the country and demographic groups, coming roughly to 20-25% of the US population by some accounts. Three points are key to their political ethics, beginning with embrace of church-state separation. Indeed, since they hold that government by definition is an institution of force, it can never be God’s way. Greg Boyd, a pastor in Minnesota, accuses the Religious Right of  “idolatry,” worshipping political wins rather than the kingdom of God. “America, like every other fallen, demonically-oppressed nation,” he writes, “is incapable of loving its enemies, doing good to those who mistreat it or blessing those who persecute it … The sooner the label ‘Christian’ gets divorced from this country, the better. It provides hope that someday the word ‘Christian’ might actually mean ‘Christ-like’ once again.”

A second key aspect of  “new evangelicalism” is self-identification as civil society actors who advocate for their positions through public education, lobbying, coalition-building, and negotiation. “New evangelicals” are not “parallel societies” but actively engaged in America’s social and charitable spheres, running a humbling list of social services—from medical clinics and prison counseling to reducing disease overseas. Though many “new evangelicals” agree with tea-party anger at, for instance, bank bailouts while millions of ordinary people lost jobs, the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good has lambasted tea-party cries for cuts in government programs, especially for the needy.

A third feature is self-identification as a critic of government when it is unjust. Holding that all governments are fallen, vulnerable to human greed and corruption, “new evangelicals” understand the vigilance needed to keep politics honest. This is the “prophetic role” of the church—not to be government but to “speak truth to power.” To critique government, one must be independent from it. The 2008 “Evangelical Manifesto” called for distance between evangelicals and party politics, lest evangelicals “become’useful idiots’ for one political partyor another and… Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests.” While white evangelicals were a bulwark of the Republican party for 35 years, in 2009-2010, the evangelical ministers Tony Campolo and Joel Hunter helped write the 2008 Democratic party platform; “new evangelicals” PACs formed to elect Obama. The National Association of Evangelicals—against many Republicans–supports immigration reform. In 2007, against the Bush administration, it issued An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture.

Indeed, some of the most searing attacks on US militarism have emerged from “new evangelical” quarters. Shane Claiborne, the Elvis of younger “new evangelicals,” writes, that the US is “…the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” teaching “the myth of redemptive violence.” Randall Balmer, in considering Religious Right militarism, writes, “Ron Parsley, pastor of World Harvest Church in Ohio, issues swords to those who join his Religious Right organization… and calls on this followers to ‘lock and load’ for a ‘Holy Ghost invasion.’  The Traditional Values Coalition advertises its ‘Battle Plan’ to take over the federal judiciary…. I wonder how this sounds to the Prince of Peace.”

Precisely because of their commitment to Christ-like love for all, “new evangelicals” overwhelmingly oppose abortion. But rather than harass doctors who provide abortion or pregnant women who seek it (tactics that became associated with the Religious Right), “new evangelicals” work—often with progressives–to reduce abortion by offering financial and emotional support to pregnant women and, post-partum, to needy women and children. Most “new evangelicals” too are uncomfortable with gay marriage, but only 29% of evangelicals under 30 find homosexuality a “problem,” and many, at all ages, support gay civil unions. On Creationism, while many believe the account in Genesis, most consider this faith, and there is little consensus on teaching religious doctrine in public schools. Critically, the emphasis on poverty relief and the environment has diminished this as a focus of activism.

Because of the opposition to abortion, a significant number of “new evangelicals” will not vote Democrat. Yet this means that their priorities in poverty relief and environmental protection will bring pressure most of all on Republicans. One might argue that increasing that party’s contributions to these arenas would be the larger achievement.

Apart from their explicit ethics and practices, “new evangelicals” implicitly argue against a fundamentalist approach to religion. Religious fundamentalists hold that true religion is unchanging and thus incompatible with democracy–and so democracy be damned. Secularists who hold fundamentalists ideas about religion believe the same thing: it doesn’t change—so religion be damned. But religion, as a human institution, changes over time and place. And if “new evangelicals” show us anything, they show us this anti-fundamentalism as well.