The Author’s Corner with Brantley W. Gasaway

Brantley Gasaway is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University. This interview is based on his new book, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice (University of North Carolina Press, October 2014).

JF: What led you to write Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice?

BG: In short, I wanted to analyze how and why the contemporary progressive evangelical movement has promoted different political positions and priorities than those championed by the much more well-known (and much more scrutinized) Religious Right.

Like most scholars, I suspect, my professional interests emerged from my personal background. I was reared and participated in fundamentalist and evangelical communities into my mid-twenties, in which support for political conservatism was a virtual tenet of faith. Not until I began my subsequent doctoral studies did I learn about politically progressive evangelicals such as Jim Wallis and Sojourners, Ron Sider and Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), The Other Side magazine, and Tony Campolo. I was surprised to learn that (1) a small but dynamic evangelical left did, in fact, exist; (2) it emerged in the early 1970s, prior to the rise of the Religious Right; and (3) no recent scholar had analyzed the historical development and core theological convictions of the contemporary progressive evangelical movement. Thus I decided to write to take up the task.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice?

BG: I argue that progressive evangelical leaders developed a theologically-inspired political philosophy—what I label their “public theology of community”—that inspired their activism, united their anomalous combination of political positions, and placed them at odds with both the Religious Right and the political left.

To wit: based upon their biblically-based definition of social justice and their commitment to the common good for all community members, progressive evangelicals challenged racialized inequalities, endorsed feminism, promoted economic justice, and denounced American nationalism and militarism; at the same time, most leaders opposed abortion and refused to affirm the morality of same-sex relationships, even as they defended gay civil rights.

JF: Why do we need to read Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice?

BG: For a number of reasons, my book will prove engaging and informative to those interested in particular debates regarding evangelicals’ political engagement and broader questions concerning the role of religion in American politics.

First, my work is the first study to trace the history of contemporary progressive evangelicalism from the mid-1960s into Barack Obama’s presidency.

Second, I offer separate chapters that respectively analyze how evangelical progressives responded to racism, feminism, abortion, homosexuality, economic injustice, and American militarism and nationalism. Within each of these thematic chapters, however, I adopt a chronological approach in order to interpret the evolving and on occasion conflicting positions of different leaders from the 1970s into the twenty-first century. Almost all of these topics remain relevant, as progressive and conservative evangelicals continue to offer conflicting interpretations of and response to these issues. Perhaps the most visible and contentious current debate regards homosexuality. A small but increasing number of progressive evangelicals— such as Jim Wallis last year—have recently endorsed same-sex marriage, while others—such as David Gushee just last week—have also voiced public support for the full inclusion of LGBT Christians within churches. Thus many readers will be interested in my chapter (and several paragraphs in my epilogue) that outlines how and why the progressive evangelical movement fractured regarding how to respond to gays and lesbians: The Other Side adopted the minority position that Christians should promote their full equality in society and the church, while Sojourners and ESA defended gay civil rights but did not accept biblical and theological arguments that affirmed covenantal same-sex unions.

Finally, my book emphasizes the theological motivations and convictions that progressive evangelicals used to justify their activism. Even as I assess the influence of other cultural forces, I highlight how leaders’ distinctive biblical interpretations inspired their public engagement and shaped their political perspectives. In this vein, I argue that the evangelical left represented a type of mirror image of the Religious Right, for both rejected arguments by political liberals such as John Rawls for the minimization or even privatization of religion in public life.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BG: During my sophomore year at the College of William & Mary, I took an introductory course in American religious history with a charismatic professor, David L. Holmes. Having recently abandoned my plans to major in mathematics, I found myself fascinated by analyses of how religion both shaped and was shaped by broader social and political forces throughout American history. In particular, I can vividly remember when and where I sat as I read Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity. I cast my lot as a major in religious studies, showing enough eagerness and promise that Prof. Holmes took the initiative to become my mentor. After a bit of a circuitous route following graduation, I determined that I was truly passionate about studying and introducing others to American religious history. I was fortunate enough to get into a doctoral program and then to land academic positions that pay me to do what I love.

JF: What is your next project?

BG: In addition to several short-term projects, I am beginning research on Christian homeschooling over recent decades. Most published studies of home education have focused on the academic performances of homeschooled children and their social, emotional, and psychological development. But few religious studies scholars have examined the homeschooling movement, and none have conducted an academic analysis of one of the most fundamental features of home-education: the curricula. Because a majority of homeschooling families are conservative Christians, many of the most popular curricula integrate religious references into their materials and align their content with conservative Christian theology. I want to explore how religious presuppositions shape these curricula and evaluate their implications for the educational development and thus the future of hundreds of thousands of children each year.

In addition, I am considering a focus on the political activism and legal strategies of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). Founded in 1983 and led most prominently by Michael Farris, HSLDA has arguably wielded the most organizational power within the Christian homeschool movement. Because I am interested in debates about the role of religion in public life and religious freedoms, I want to analyze the impact of HSLDA upon public policies and public perceptions regarding Christian homeschooling.

JF: Good stuff, thanks Brantley!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner