Interview: Marcia Pally on the New Evangelicals

Interview: Marcia Pally on the New Evangelicals 

By Jarrod Longbons

The Art of the Good Life: Contemporary Thinkers You Should Read

Nov. 1, 2011

 Professor Marcia Pally teaches at New YorkUniversity in Multilingual Multicultural Studies and at Fordham University’s Institute of American Language and Culture. Her new book is The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good with a foreword by the eminent theologian John Milbank. Pally’s attention is mainly focused on Religion, Politics, and Culture.  You can find references to her many works (books, articles, essays) on her website I am very excited about her recent work on the “new evangelicals” which will interest anyone who is interested not only in better understanding this significant shift in America’s religio-political landscape but also the intersections among religion, culture, and American History.

I had the opportunity to meet and share a meal with Dr. Pally at a conference inKrakow, Poland earlier this year. Over a bowl of fish soup and steak, we fervently discussed the films of Terrence Malick and Lars Von Trier.  It was a lot of fun…between us two accomplished “talkers,” I am not sure that John Milbank or Robin Parry could keep up (they were there too).  She is a lovely and generous woman, and I am so very thankful for her willingness to do this interview.  The interview alone has sharpened my understanding of evangelicalism, as I am sure you will see.  In fact, Pally exposes several holes in the way I have always classified this diverse movement. Enjoy!

1.)    Who are the “new evangelicals?” Could you name some of the proponents of the “new evangelicalism” and name who they are and how (or who) they contrast with the “old evangelical” establishment?

The “new evangelicals” are millions of Christians – across denominations, demographics, and the country – who have left the religious right for an anti-consumerist, anti-militarist activism focusing on economic fairness, environmental protection (creation care), immigration reform, and racial/religious reconciliation. Those I’ve spoken with over the last six years of field research include the Illinois student, the retired firefighter from Mississippi, the southern megachurch pastor, David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, and “new monastic” Shane Claiborne, who’s so popular that I’ve taken to calling him the “Elvis” of young evangelicals.

“New evangelicals” span a range of theological views, just as evangelicals overall do, but their activism has broadened beyond the issues that became associated with the religious right to emphasize inclusion, outreach, cooperation, and humbling levels of service.

            The term “new evangelicals comes from Richard Cizik, former Vice President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals and current president of the New Evangelicals Partnership for the Common Good. He used it to point out what he calls a “slow earthquake” and what evangelical theologian Scot McKnight has called “the biggest change in the evangelical movement at the end of the twentieth century, a new kind of Christian social conscience.”[1]

2.)    Should the break from “old evangelicalism” change our very definition of evangelicalism?

            I don’t use or even consider the term “old” evangelicalism. When would that be—the Awakening of the 1740s? 1830s? Billy Sunday? Early 20th century evangelical socialists? The core tenets of evangelicalism remain consistent since the early modern era. They include the search for an “inner” relationship with Jesus; a mission to bring others to that relationship; 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. Moreover, not only have theological tenets retained their core but evangelical activism has as well. American evangelicals have always been robust civil-society builders, just as today. The largest US government operation in ante-bellum America, for instance, was the postal service, but by 1850 evangelical churches had double the employees, twice as many facilities, and raised three times as much money. Many of these evangelical associations were progressive, even radical, supporting farmers and squatters against landlords, the little guy against bankers and big business, agrarian reform, women preachers, and the like. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was possible to be both an evangelical and a socialist. The Fundamentals series of pamphlets–written in 1910-1915 as a conservative call to evangelicals – included a chapter titled, “The Church and Socialism,” which acknowledged “the wisdom of many Socialistic proposals.” If this gets you interested, The New Evangelicalshas a chapter on this history.

            So, the “new evangelical” focus on service both in and outside their own communities has a long tradition. One might say they are returning to it after a period of time when the more sensationalist aspects of the religious right got a loud microphone.

3.) Precisely, how does the “new evangelical” movement use their Christian confession in order to engage wider political/social issues?

 As in any large group, beliefs vary, but one may say that there is a family resemblance among “new evangelical” views. For instance, there are roughly 2,000 Scriptural versus on our obligation to help the needy. It’s not a long leap from there to the “new evangelical” focus on service. Jesus eschewed violence; he neither fomented rebellion against the Roman government nor set himself up as government, which is by definition an institution of force. He accepted the extreme sacrifice of crucifixion rather than recant his vision of a more just, loving world. It’s not a long leap from there to “new evangelical” emphasis on conversation, inclusion, cooperation, outreach to others, and anti-militarism.

On one hand, “new evangelicals” understand that, though governments are needed to avoid chaos (Romans 13: 1-7), they are human, thus fallen, and cannot be relied on to pursue God’s ways. On the other hand, “new evangelicals” tend to see Jesus as political—not in the sense of being the state but in the sense of showing a new way to live in the polis. This is not traditional politics, not beingin power, but rather the prophetic role of speaking truth to power. Many evangelicals today are questioning the “political wins” strategy of the religious right’s heyday and its sometimes uncritical conflation of Jesus’ teaching with Republican policies.

Key “new evangelical” ideas here are service and forming relationships/community with those one serves; the Jubilee; neither imposing oneself nor retreating into one’s own group but rather employing patience, quiet modeling, and service unto sacrifice: “the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves… I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).

             4.) Please describe your research method? How did you go about learning the position of these “new evangelicals?” 

First, a decade of reading the primary and secondary sources on the history of evangelicalism and on evangelicalism today, including books, articles, letters, diaries, church and para-church websites, the materials of religious organizations, religious blogs, sermons, and so on. I also looked at the key political and legal issues in which evangelicals have been and remain involved. I did six or so years of field research around the country, talking to people, ages 19-74, across the demographic, economic, professional, and geographical range. A select number of interviews were repeated over time, for longitudinal analysis.

5.) Why is this study so pertinent for understanding American religion, culture, and politics?

         My good man, because one cannot understand anything about the United States without understanding the influence of evangelicalism on it—on its culture, values, assumptions, paradoxes, memories, social, economic and political development, and foreign policy. Trying to understand America without understanding evangelicalism is like trying to understand Ikea without understanding screws. Screws aren’t the only thing you need, but if you don’t understand them, you won’t see how the thing holds together.

6.) Are there European parallels to the “new evangelicals?”

The British dissenting and “free churches,” the Anabaptists, and the German Moravians and Pietists are the parents of America’s evangelicals. Though these groups were often persecuted by Europe’s state churches, many of these free-standing (non-state-church) denominations remain today, and some emphasize a theology and activism similar to America’s “new evangelicals.”

However, one salient difference is the influential position that evangelicalism has known in the US in contrast to the far smaller influence, theologically and culturally, that similar groups in Europe have had. And that difference—between being a small, wary minority and being an influential part of the culture—makes for significant differences in church and individual conduct, expectations, impact, relations with the state and other societal groups, and expertise in running organizations.

7.) Dr. Pally, is there one particular social issue of concern to the “new evangelicals” or are the concerns fairly diverse? To me, this is interesting, because most evangelicals are protestant, even non-denominational, so it seems that evangelicals do not have a figure head or central leadership model that guides/informs their work in the world.

The relatively flat hierarchy and independence of local churches that characterizes most of Protestantism characterizes “new evangelicals” as well. Moreover, since evangelicalism is an approach to Protestantism found across many denominations, it can work relatively easily with the non-denominational currents in many churches today. So at bottom, “new evangelical” projects span quite a range. But they tend to collect in the areas of economic fairness, environmental protection, racial/religious reconciliation and immigration reform. While for some that might mean an inner-city youth program, for others it means a prison ministry or free medical clinic and for still others, job training, irrigation, or business development in the developing world.

Of significant importance economically is that these programs are no longer just alms-giving but aim also at something much more radical and productive: to restructure access to resources (education, health care, micro-credit, clean water) so that people who did not have economic possibilities now have them. It is the democratization of opportunity. This use of “new evangelical” money and expertise is having distinct economic impact, in many cases, in significant measure.

8.) Since evangelicalism has historically impacted American politics through the platform of the “religious right,” how has evangelical influence changed with the social/ideological moves of the new evangelicals?

The impact of the religious right hasn’t had a long history but is actually rather recent. While it has gotten the microphone over much of the last 40 years, up until the turn of the 20th century, evangelicals were often quite progressive, as we discussed above.

Perhaps the most interesting shifts today concern abortion, the future electoral landscape, and policy assessment. Whereas evangelicals used to be considered the Republican Party at prayer, today they are likely to assess policies issue-by-issue: more Republican on abortion, more Democratic on the environment, more independent on economics. As early as 2005, no less a publication than Christianity Today, dismayed by the uncritical allegiance to the Republicans, wrote, “George W. Bush is not Lord… The American flag is not the Cross. The Pledge of Allegiance is not the Creed. ‘God Bless America’ is not Doxology.” The magazine rejected the conflation of Biblical truths with Republican values and of church with state. By 2008, the Evangelical Manifesto, signed by over seventy evangelical leaders, was bolder still. It called on evangelicals to distance themselves from party politics, lest “Christians become ‘useful idiots’ for one political party or another and . . . Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests.”

This increasing political sophistication allows evangelicals to direct their energies far more precisely, rather than writing one party a blank check. This is important because, media buzz notwithstanding, most politics takes place not at elections but between them, when policies are negotiated and implemented. So as “new evangelicals” work – alone, with other organizations, or with government – on environmental protection and economic fairness, it’s those sorts of things that start to happen. It makes a great deal of difference if evangelicals spend their energy, commitment, and resources on these things rather than on making placards saying, “God hates fags!” According to the evangelicals I’ve spoken to, man may hate and fear, but God doesn’t hate anyone.

That said evangelicals, including “new evangelicals,” are unlikely to swing Democrat because of their opposition to abortion. And this means that millions of “new evangelicals” don’t have a candidate. This is astonishing. They are “values” voters whose values lead them to oppose abortion, protect the environment, and fight poverty. They are Republican on abortion but not necessarily Republican on economic or environmental policies. Who is out there that represents this mix ofvalues?

Richard Land, president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, 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.”[2]

So, to be blunt, if all those uncomfortable with abortion—the religious, feminists, secularists—worked to reduce it drastically, we’d have a political game-changer. Evangelicals might no longer be cemented to the Republican Party.

But substantially reducing abortion requires the money to remove the economic motive that is responsible for 73% for US abortions—money to provide the medical, emotional, and other support (day care, job training, etc.), during pregnancy and post-partum, that makes it possible for women to have and raise their children. Money is also needed for mentoring programs to help boys and men become responsible partners and fathers. Many “new evangelicals” have noted the incompleteness of being pro-life but doing little to further that.

9.) In your research, what have you found to be the main reason that the “new evangelicals” have taken up these new/other political and social issues (the change from abortion and homosexuality to concern for the poor, the environment, and such)?

It’s not a change from abortion/gays to concern for the poor. It’s a broadening of their activism to include other things. One reason is generational, with idealistic younger evangelicals rejecting the religious-right, “prosperity gospel” politics of their parents, as Gabe Lyons and David Kinnamon wrote in their book Unchristian. Another is that since the 1960s, views about sex, the environment, and global connectedness have shifted nationwide. To many, the positions of the religious right, in the “middle” 35 years ago, feel out-of-touch today. This feeling has been furthered by the significant increase in overseas missions work by ordinary 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 fighting over whether homosexual couples should have health care proxy rights in cases of catastrophic illness.

This is the ethics factor—the big issue–in a group that takes ethics seriously. Another ethics issue was the militarism and cavalier attitude towards torture during the Bush years, which prodded many evangelicals to re-examine the wisdom of being in government, by definition human and faulty, and to consider instead the prophetic role in furthering the Kingdom.

10.) Do the “new evangelicals” ignore the main concerns of the “religious right,” namely: abortion and homosexuality? 

“New evangelicals”—in the sense of shifting away from policies associated with the religious right–do not ignore those issues, but the energy and priorities are elsewhere, except perhaps for providing women the support needed to have and raise their children. Nearly 40% of all evangelicals—“new” or otherwise—accept gay civil unions[3] while a majority of evangelicals under 30 do.

One approach gaining ground is the distinction between homosexuality as sin and homosexuality as a crime or condition for diminished rights. One may hold that homosexuality is a sin, but many “new evangelicals” note that democracies do not take away a person’s civil rights because he commits other sins, such as greed or heterosexual adultery. Another approach gaining ground suggests re-vamping the state’s role in marriage more broadly. On this view, government should grant civil unions to heterosexual and same-sex couples, as that is the state’s legitimate purview. Such unions would grant rights and responsibilities that promote the common good, such as parental responsibility for child support. Religious marriage would then be left to the churches, with each congregation deciding whether to bless gay ones.

11.) In America, evangelicalism has maintained a difficult position within public, religious life. It attempts to break from the anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism while simultaneously it tries to establish itself as a valid intellectual expression of Christian faith alongside liberal Protestants and Catholics. Do you think the “new evangelicals” achieve this more successfully than its older evangelical antecedents?

You mean “older” like B.B. Warfield of Princeton, Henry Ward Beecher, Social Gospel leader Walter Rauschenbusch, Fundamentals author Charles Erdman (also Princeton), or John Yoder, who wrote his call for a progressive, prophetic Christianity (The Politics of Jesus) in 1972? I’m tweaking you because the last 40 years of the religious right does not represent the whole of evangelicalism. It is because evangelicals have had such a robust history of service, intellectual life, and defense of freedom of conscience that “new evangelicals” have a tradition to call upon.

Evangelicals with a variety of theological and political positions have developed a substantial body of scholarship since Mark Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1994. “New evangelicals” have had a vital part in this but not a monopoly. Noll’s 2011 book, as if to answer your question, is called Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.

12.) Much of the “new evangelical” movement embraces other Christian traditions, from aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy to aspects of Roman Catholicism, Anabaptism, Anglicanism, and even monasticism. Do you think this is a sign of “post-Protestantism?” Will the next wave of evangelicals, in your opinion, begin to go back to older and more historical traditions of Christianity?

Evangelicals don’t have to go “back” to Anabaptism or to the ideas of the dissenting and free thinking churches, the Pietists, etc. because those ideas were part of the evangelical evolution. Traditions of any duration and geographical spread have many sources. Evangelicals have been with us for more than 400 years. Calling that a lack of historical tradition might be hard to sell.

I’d also expect evangelicals to continue to evolve their ideas because that’s what human groups do. God may be a transcendent eternal, but religions are human institutions–our best but puny understanding of the divine. And that understanding changes over time and place.

13.) Are there other, non-social, influences for the “new evangelicals?” By that I mean did you come across evangelicals who have been influenced by Roman Catholic social teaching? I know that many evangelicals are influenced by N. T. Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, Alasdair MacIntyre, and even Wendell Berry…all these thinkers seem to have introduced views to evangelicals than other than sola scriptura and deistic moralism.

Yes to all of that. “New evangelical” scholars and thinkers read widely, as do the scholars you mentioned above. Try this: go to any “new evangelical” book in my bibliography and look at the names in their bibliographies. You’ll find quite a range. Finding out what other people are thinking and doing is one reason for reading in the first place. We look around for ideas that might expand our own.

This is also one reason people should be interested in “new evangelicals.” Their particular synthesis of principles, practices, and activism has much to contribute. For instance, hardly a day goes by when religion is not in the news, often associated with persecution, terrorism, and fundamentalism. Yet “new evangelicals” are avid supporters of democracy, pluralism, and freedom of conscience—even as they are devoutly religious. Perhaps the world would do well to find out how they come to a mix wherein faith, liberal democracy and economic fairness are robust.

14.) Why are you interested in these “new evangelicals?”

Because they have something to teach me as well. And because I’m interested in the way things go down. It’s not possible to understand how things go down in the US without understanding evangelicalism.

15.) Dr. Pally, could you tell us about your own religious convictions? How have the “new evangelicals” influenced the way you see the world?

They have strengthened my commitment to the service I already do and have also made me feel its inadequacy. They have also enhanced my understanding of the transformational power of grace and forgiveness, and the tragedy that ensues when people cannot forgive or be forgiven—from defense mechanisms that destroy relationships to ethnic/religious violence.

The resistance I sometimes encounter to my research has also made an impression on me. There are those who, owing to the culture wars of the last 40 years, are convinced that evangelicals are benighted, befuddled, fundamentalist, and fascist. Though well educated and accomplished in a wide variety of arenas, they find it difficult to refine their categories in this one, even as the landscape shifts and as new research comes in. It’s a kind of secular fundamentalism. Others, often people of faith, hold that evangelicalism hasn’t changed, cannot or should not change, so there are no differences between what we know as the religious right, the evangelical socialism of the early 20th century, and the recent “new monasticism.” Or they think that only one of these is the “real” faith. It’s areligious fundamentalism—and it is historical and empirical nonsense. Though core elements remain constant, the Protestantism practiced in 16th century Munster is not identical to the Protestantism in 21st century Seoul—or 21stcentury Munster for that matter. But I wonder what fears are masked by such sure-minded—to my mind un-humble and ungenerous – declarations about God’s ways. This is pride and Christians not listening to other Christians.

Both responses not only sadden me, they—like any closed-mindedness—frighten me. They fail to see what is, in favor of what they’d like things to be. And the luxury of self-imposed ignorance is both unethical and dangerous.

17.) Any upcoming research that you can tell us about? Any more work on the contemporary evangelicalism?

            Indeed. I have begun to look at the economic impact of evangelical work in economic fairness/poverty relief. But rather than say too much prematurely, let’s have another one of these chats in a few years.

[1] Kirkpatrick, D. (2007, October 28). The Evangelical Crackup. The New York Times magazine.
[2] Tomma, S. (2007, Sept. 30). Influence of Christian right in the GOP wanes. McClatchyWashington Bureau.