Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good–Part Three

For the first post in this short series on the recent meeting of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good click here.  For part two click here.

Friday morning was history morning at the annual gathering of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good at Georgetown University.  Ron Sider asked me to present a historical overview of evangelical engagement with public life as background for the discussion of “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” that would occur later that morning.  Thomas Banchoff, the director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, was asked to do a similar talk in preparation for the afternoon discussion of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” I will discuss his paper in the next post.

My paper offered a sweeping overview of evangelical social engagement from the late 19th-century to the present.  The topics I addressed included the Evangelical Alliance of 1873, Dwight L. Moody, William Jennings Bryan, the Social Gospel, the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals, John Harold Ockenga, Carl F.H. Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), Billy Graham, evangelicals and Eisenhower civil religion, the evangelical responses to the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, the rise of the evangelical left, Francis Schaeffer, Mark Hatfield, Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, abortion, the Green v. Conally case, and Jim Wallis and the election of 2004.  A lot of my material came from the early chapters of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation.

Here is the conclusion to my paper, which a few evangelicals at the meeting found far too dour and depressing.

So where does this leave us?  Since 1980 the Christian Right has defined for the general public what it means to be a socially responsible evangelical.  Its leaders continue to understand Christian activism in terms of two or three social issues.  And as long as conservative evangelicals remain concerned with abortion and gay marriage the Christian Right will continue to have traction in American life and in the Republican Party.  In other words, I don’t think the Christian Right is going away any time soon, but I am a historian, and these kinds of predictions take me beyond my pay grade.

Meanwhile, the evangelical middle and left toiled in relative obscurity during the 1980s and 1990s until the Democrats found God in the wake of the 2004 presidential elections and called upon Jim Wallis and other progressive Christians for help.  The willingness of Democrats to entertain the possibility of thinking religiously (and even theologically) about their political agenda opened the door for a more nuanced and comprehensive conversation about evangelical social action.  As Christian Right founders pass from the scene, a new group of evangelical leaders such as Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Joel Hunter, and Richard Cizik are challenging evangelicals to rethink their commitment to social justice and to embrace a consistent and comprehensive ethic of life.

Evangelical young people, many of them connecting with “emerging churches” that meet in coffeehouses and shopping malls are getting their politics and understanding of cultural engagement from evangelical progressives such as Shane Claiborne and Brian McClaren.  Columnists like Nicholas Kristof consistently praise evangelicals working to alleviate poverty in Darfur and stopping sex trafficking around the globe.  Compassionate evangelical conservatives are engaged in fighting HIV/AIDS by making sure the infrastructure is present for folks to search for testing centers by zip should they need it.  Evangelicals continue to defend the right of the unborn and the institutions of marriage and family.  James Davison Hunter, in his recent book To Change the World, has challenged evangelicals–of both the left, right, and neo-Anabaptist persuasions–to stop trying to change the world through politics and instead consider social change through faithful presence in their communities.

Yet, while observers of American religion such as David Kirkpatrick, Amy Sullivan, and E.J. Dionne, just to name a few, are noticing an increasing number of evangelicals becoming engaged in social action, we still, to borrow a phrase from the late Christopher Lasch, are living in a “culture of narcissism.”   Sociologist Christian Smith informs us that young people uphold views of the world today defined by “moral therapeutic deism” and “extreme moral individualism.”  As a professor at an evangelical college, I see both a strong concern among students for bringing their faith to bear on the problems of the world that goes beyond politics and the culture wars.  But I also see an obsession with the self–as defined by consumerism and narcissism–that makes me wonder if there is any significant difference between the habits of evangelical young people and non-evangelical young people.

Thankfully, we evangelicals have a document such as “For the Health of a Nation” to guide us through these times.  I am sure those at the 1873 meeting of the Evangelical Alliance would have read these document and been proud.