April 19, 2007
Evangelicals on the Left? How Shocking! How Awful!
— John G. Stackhouse
Martin Marty wrote on Monday about evangelicals from his vantage point outside evangelicalism — but within the fellowship of those he likes to call the "original evangelicals," namely, Lutherans. From within (latter-day) evangelicalism, then, I offer this week's second observation of this burgeoning movement.
I have been wondering why people both within and without evangelicalism are so surprised — and sometimes even upset — about the emergence of a "non-right-wing" evangelicalism in America.
For example, the executive of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) recently endorsed a document produced by a group called Evangelicals for Human Rights that condemns the use of torture, and calls on the United States government in particular to forswear its use. This action, coming after last year's declaration of concern about global climate change by evangelicals as prominent as Rick "Purpose Driven" Warren, has aroused shock and awe among many on the right who had previously enjoyed arrogating the term "evangelical" entirely to themselves.
Mark Tooley of "Front Page Magazine" says that "the 17-member drafting committee, called 'Evangelicals for Human Rights,' is comprised nearly exclusively of pseudo-pacifist academics and antiwar activists who sharply condemn the Bush administration." (One notes with bemusement this characterization of, for example, drafter David Neff, editor of the notoriously non-left-leaning Christianity Today magazine. And one asks again the perennial question, What exactly is a "pseudo-pacifist"?)
Indeed, Tooley pronounces the ultimate doom on the NAE and its fellow-travelers: They are on the same leftist path to irrelevancy, if not heresy, as the National Council of Churches — an insult no greater than which can be conceived in these circles.
The same week as this bit of excitement was brewing, Michael Kerlin of Philadelphia's "Evening Bulletin" wrote of "A Different Kind of Evangelical" — namely, a typical South American evangelical who votes with left-wing political parties because they promise relief and social change from the establishment's oppression. Mr. Kerlin suggested that as the First Evangelical was touring South America, President Bush might have liked to know that the average evangelical is more likely to vote for the likes of Daniel Ortega or Hugo Chavez than anyone else. He or she would do so because the alternative choices usually mean voting for the old regime of landowners or the new regime of business magnates, not to mention the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which is often identified with both.
Meanwhile, our gaze returns to North America, where evangelicals are excited about the release of the movie Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce and the campaign to abolish the British slave trade. But in the context of these contemporary observations, we might ask whether this evangelical hero would be more likely to line up today with Jim Dobson or Jim Wallis.
Of course, it is anachronistic in the extreme to try to situate Wilberforce in terms of today's American political landscape. And there wasn't a lot of socialist theory to attract Wilberforce's interest — he died in 1833, in the earliest decades of socialist thinking and fifteen years before the Communist Manifesto was published. But the abolition of slavery is what anyone would have to call government-initiated broad structural change on behalf of justice — which is what socialism ideally is all about. So it's certainly not clear that Wilberforce would maintain the current religious right's narrow focus on the (free, white, prosperous) family, so to speak.
Indeed, as a Canadian who has lived all his life with a third national political party dedicated to democratic socialism and founded by a Baptist pastor; as one with a nodding acquaintance with social democratic movements in Britain, the European Continent, and Australasia; and as one who notes that George W. Bush's best political friend in the world is a Christian man who leads the British Labour Party — well, the idea that evangelicalism should be confined to the American right strikes me as something that could literally happen only in America.
Laurie Goodstein's article "Evangelical Leaders Join Global Warming Initiative" (New York Times, February 8, 2006) can be read at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/08/national/08warm.html?
Michael D. Kerlin's article "A Different Kind of Evangelical"
(The Evening Bulletin, March 12, 2007) can be read at: http://www.thebulletin.us/site/news.cfm?newsid=18068434&BRD=2737&PAG=
Mark Tooley's article "The Evangelical Left's Tortured Logic" (FrontPageMagazine.com, March 15, 2007) can be read at: http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=27382.
John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism: Religious, Irreligious, and Areligious" by W. Clark Gilpin. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
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