When progressive evangelicals held the national stage

George_McGovern,_c_1972

George McGovern

Over at Sojourners, American religious historian Randall Balmer traces the history of progressive evangelicalism in the 1970s. Here is a taste of “Before the Religious Right, Progressive Evangelicals Gained the National Spotlight“:

Richard Nixon’s promise of a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam, which boosted him to presidency in 1968, turned out to entail expanding the war to Cambodia in the spring of 1970, thereby prompting protests across the nation and the shooting of four students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Nevertheless, Nixon rallied his “silent majority” in advance of the 1972 presidential election, and he entered the campaign with decided advantages.

The Democratic nominee was George McGovern, senator from South Dakota who grew up in the parsonage of a Wesleyan Methodist minister and who himself studied for the ministry at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary before going on to earn the Ph.D. from Northwestern University. McGovern, a decorated war hero in World War II, brought his campaign to Wheaton College’s Edman Chapel on the morning of October 11, 1972.

I was a first-year student at Trinity College, and I persuaded several of my classmates to skip our daily chapel and accompany me to Wheaton. I shall never forget the scene. Students paraded around the chapel with Nixon campaign banners. McGovern opened by saying that he had wanted to attend Wheaton, but his family couldn’t afford it. He went on to explain that his understanding of justice and social responsibility was derived from the Bible. By the end of his remarks, McGovern had won a respectful hearing from many of the students.

Nevertheless, Billy Graham had endorsed Nixon, and white evangelicals followed the evangelist’s lead.

Read the entire piece here.

For more on this history, I recommend three books:

Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter

David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

Brantley Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice

Mark Lempke, My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity

Robb Ryerse: An Evangelical, Pro Gay Rights, Small Government, Medicare for All, Anti-Abortion, Anti-Confederate Monument, Pro Tax Reform, and Green Energy Republican Who Ran for Congress in 2018

Learn more here:

Ryerse is a graduate of Summit University (formerly Baptist Bible College) in Clarks Summit, PA and Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA.   Summit University has roots in the fundamentalist General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.  Biblical Theological Seminary is a generally evangelical seminary founded when theologian Allen McRae broke ranks with fundamentalist crusader Carl McIntire.  Ryerse has since left fundamentalism and now pastors a more progressive evangelical congregation.

At one point early in the film, Ryerse notes that one his favorite books is “Feinberg’s Systematic Theology.”  I did not know that John Feinberg, Paul Feinberg, or their father Charles Feinberg ever wrote a complete systematic theology.  Perhaps I did not hear this correctly.

He is considering another run in 2020.

Why I Defended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Statement on its Racist Past

Southern Sem

Below is a version of what I wrote in the comments of this post.  You can read that post to get up to speed.

I responded to a post by someone named Justin S.  He wrote:

We are all in different stages of processing our racial heritage and identities, and I like you’re “walking” analogy. The trouble is–it seems to me–that a lot of people come from such a retrogressive perspective that they expect affirmation for taking a step or two forward when they have miles left to go.

It is commendable that SBTS is making an effort to more-clearly assess its trouble past, and I think you make a good point when you observe that we are all in different places. But when you lobby for more understanding and equanimity from their critics, it sounds like you are saying, “Hey, let’s cut them some slack now because–even though they are still pretty racist–they are slightly less racist than they used to be.” It’s unrealistic to expect people to treat dogmatic racists kindly just because they’re trying to be less racist about their dogma, especially when they’re still hurting people with their slightly-less-toxic racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and nationalism.

I know some of the folks who wrote the SBTS statement and I can attest to their integrity and serious commitment to racial reconciliation.  Justin, what do you want them to stop doing? Seriously, would you rather they not have written the report? Are their past sins so great that cannot be redeemed? (I don’t think you believe this). These folks know the work is not done.

As far as I know, no one at SBTS is “expecting affirmation” for the statement. So far they have been quiet about the criticism they are getting. (By the way, when I say I know these folks I do not mean Al Mohler. Frankly, I am afraid he will open his mouth and make things worse. I am referring instead to some of the historians who authored the document).

I have defended the SBTS publicly because I felt someone had to do it. I don’t want to “cut them slack,” I want to encourage my fellow evangelicals to walk with them on the journey. Of course we will all be watching to see where they go next.

In the end, I think SBTS is going to have to turn for help to people with whom they might have theological disagreements.  Non-conservative evangelical Christians have more experience on this front.  For example, what might it look like if SBTS takes a meeting with Chris Graham and his racial reconciliation committee at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy?” Of course SBTS will never embrace St. Paul’s progressive liberal theology, but they can certainly learn from the way this historic church has tried to deal with its racist past.

I understand that progressive Christians want more out of this statement. Many have suffered as a result of the Southern Baptist Convention’s racist past. This should not be ignored. There is time and space to be angry, but I am a Christian and I cannot dwell in anger any more than I can dwell in fear.

Right now progressive Christians should be getting on the phone and calling SBTS to ask how they can help the seminary on its journey.  Isn’t this the kind of work progressive evangelicals want to do?  Instead, they are criticizing the seminary in public and on social media.

I tend to view the SBTS statement through the eyes of hope.  And God knows we could use more hope in the world right now.

Thank You Lisa Sharon Harper!

Lisa Sharon Harper

Over at Sojourners, Christian writer, cultural critic, and fellow New Jerseyan Lisa Sharon Harper calls out white evangelicals for their support of Donald Trump.  Here is a taste of her “Open Letter White Evangelicals“:

Politics is the conversations we have and the decisions we make about how we should live together. You have claimed that your political support for Trump is not a reflection of your own beliefs about race but is about issues such as abortion—appointing more conservative judges to the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. But PRRI and The Atlantic have revealed a deeper reason for your support. When their 2018 Voter Engagement Survey asked many of you if you believed the nation would be better or worse off when people of color are in the majority, 52 percent of you responded that the impact would be “mostly negative.” It seems many of you want a white nation.

It is no wonder, then, that so many of you have supported Trump with unwavering loyalty. He promised you the golden crown, the Supreme Court, the key to winning your culture war and winning back white supremacy. He is holding up his end of the deal—and so are you.

At best, many of you have been silent. At worst, many of you have led cheers for Trump as he separated families and left babies on floors in cages, removed protection from refugees, threatened people of color through changes in the courts and policing system, removed protection from poor communities and communities of color threatened by toxic dumping on their lands, proposed removing funding from poor schools, and tried hard to remove health insurance from 30 million struggling individuals.

White evangelical church, this is your witness. You have become evidence of forces hell-bent on subordinating people of color and crushing the image of God. Repent and believe the gospel.

Read the entire letter here.

Why did so many white evangelicals vote for Donald Trump?  I tried to offer some reasons here.

Progressive Evangelicals Revive the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern

YMCA Wabash

The Wabash Avenue YMCA, Chicago

In 1973, a group of evangelical leaders gathered at the YMCA on Wabash Avenue in Chicago to affirm the Christian call to racial justice, care for the poor, peace, and equality for women.  The result of this meeting was The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.  The signers included Samuel Escobar, Frank Gaebelein, Vernon Grounds, Nancy Hardesty, Carl F.H. Henry, Paul B. Henry, Rufus Jones, C.T. McIntire, David Moberg, Richard Mouw, William Pannell, John Perkins, Richard Pierard, Bernard Ramm, Ronadl Sider, Sharon Gallagher, Lewis Smedes, Jim Wallis, and John Howard Yoder.

Historian David Swartz begins his excellent book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism with a discussion of this meeting.  I encourage you to read his extensive coverage of this important moment in the history of progressive evangelicalism.  I also highly recommend Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice.

Forty-five years after this Chicago YMCA meeting, progressive evangelicals have reaffirmed the Declaration.  Here is a taste of “The Chicago Invitation: Diverse Evangelicals Continue the Journey”:

As diverse evangelicals, our faith moves us to confess and lament that we have often fallen short of the biblical values and commitments proclaimed in the gospel and affirmed in the 1973 Declaration. In addition to the 1973 Declaration, many diverse evangelicals, including women, African-American, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, and Indigenous leaders, have put out strong statements that have often been ignored. Millions of people, especially younger believers, have left the faith during a time in which evangelicalism has become increasingly partisan and politicized. People on both sides of the political aisle have demonized those who disagree with us and failed to love both our neighbors and our “enemies,” as Jesus instructs us to do. We should not be captive to any political party, because our allegiance belongs to Christ. Like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we believe the church is “called to be the conscience of the state, not the master or the servant of the state.”

Affirming the 1973 Declaration, as well as other historic statements from diverse evangelicals, we recommit to an evangelical faith that follows Jesus’ example of living and sharing a gospel that always proclaims good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed. (Luke 4: 18-19)

We recommit to a biblical justice that demonstrates the reign of God as we strive for abundant life for all God’s children, which must include combating economic inequality and exploitation.

We recommit to more faithfully and courageously follow Jesus, who affirmed the sacredness and dignity of all human life.

Building on the 1973 Declaration as well as other historic statements from diverse evangelicals, we also commit to love and protect all people—including life at every stage, people of color, women, Indigenous people, immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people, people who are living with disabilities or mental health issues, poor and impoverished people, and each one who is marginalized, hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick, or imprisoned. (Matthew 25:31-46)

We commit to care for and protect the earth as God’s creation.

We commit to resisting all manifestations of racism, white nationalism, and any forms of bigotry—all of which are sins against God.

We commit to resisting patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and any form of sexism and to always affirm the dignity, voices, and leadership of women.

We commit to defend the dignity and rights of all people, particularly as we celebrate and embrace the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in our nation and churches.

Signers include  Ruth Bentley (1973 signer), Tony Campolo, Sharon Gallagher (1973 signer), Shane Claiborne, Ruth Padilla-DeBorst,  Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (1973 signer), Lisa Sharon Harper, Joel Hunter, David Moberg (1973 signer), William Pannell (1973 signer), Richard Pierard (1973 signer), Ronald Sider (1973 signer), Andrea Smith, Jim Wallis (1973 signer), Barbara Williams-Skinner, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

Read the entire statement here.  Jim Wallis discusses the statement here.

I have a hard time keeping track of all these religious “declarations,” but I took note of this one because of its connection to the historic 1973 meeting.

“We Need a Revival”

Liberty U
We linked to his “Photo Essay” on Wednesday.  Today we want to call your attention to David Swartz‘s report from Liberty University and the Red Letter Revival.  Swartz visited both this past weekend.

Here is a taste of his piece at the Anxious Bench:

Over the weekend, I drove our trusty red minivan from Kentucky across the Appalachian Mountains to Virginia to check out the action. I attended the revival Friday night, took a three-hour campus tour of Liberty on Saturday morning, and then returned to the revival on Saturday afternoon. As you might expect, the contrasts between the two evangelical sites—just five minutes apart—were fascinating and stark. (For a photographic essay of both sites, click here.)

If not for much of the content, Falwell might have felt quite comfortable with the Red Letter Revival. Preachers called for more piety and generous giving. They warned of sin pervading the land. They told churchy jokes (Claiborne said he wasn’t in Lynchburg to protest, but instead to “pro-testify!”), using humor along with lament to drive a spirit of old-fashioned revivalism. Attendees responded, raising their hands and exhorting the preachers from their seats. Exclamations of “We need a revival!” carried along extended periods of biblical exposition. As the gathering ended, Tony Campolo presided over an altar call.

Read the rest here.

Progressive Evangelicals vs. Court Evangelicals in Lynchburg

Trump court evangelicals

Over at VOX, Tara Isabella Burton has a nice piece of reporting/commentary on the so-called “Red Letter Revival.”  Glad to see the phrase “court evangelical” made the cut.

A taste:

Two years ago, the idea that the old-guard evangelicals would treat Trumpism as a tenet of their faith was unimaginable. According to a FiveThirtyEight poll, only 44 percent of white evangelical Republicans supported Trump during the primaries. But in the months and years since Trump won the Republican primary, evangelicalism, (white) nationalism, and Trumpism have become increasingly closely linked. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in the general election.

Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Channel, as I have previously written, has become a de facto mouthpiece for the Trump administration, lobbing softballs at administration officials in exchange for access. Members of Trump’s evangelical advisory council, including prosperity gospel preacher Paula White, have gone on the record telling listeners that God has ordained the Trump presidency.

Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and Trump’s evangelical right-hand man, even turned “Make America Great Again” into a hymn. As historian John Fea put it in a Washington Post op-ed, these are “court evangelicals,” who see Christianity and political power as going hand in hand.

As a result, across the evangelical spectrum, those who have vocally opposed Trump or his policies have often met with strong backlash. After Southern Baptist Convention leader Russell Moore — president of the convention’s policy arm — made vocal opposition to Trump a hallmark of his public persona, hundreds of Southern Baptist churchesthreatened to withhold funding from the central convention. (While Moore kept his job, he was forced to apologize for some of his remarks about Trump.)

Read the entire piece here.

Can Progressive Evangelicals Claim the “Anabaptist” Label?

mennonite

Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church: Goessel, Kansas (Wikipedia)

Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University has written a very interesting piece explaining the difference between progressive evangelicalism and Anabaptism.   The election of Donald Trump has led many progressive Christians to claim the Anabaptist mantle But as Beck explains, this progressive approach to politics does not always conform to Anabaptist political teaching.

Here is a taste of Beck’s piece at Mennonite World Review:

The story starts in 2003, with George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Many progressive Christians mobilized against that war. At the time, social media was just exploding. Blogging was in its Golden Age. Twitter would show up in 2006, just in time for the 2007-2008 Presidential campaign where we debated the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture and Guantanamo Bay.

As these debates raged on social media, Anabaptist theology, with its criticisms of nationalism and war, became a powerful theological tool in the hands of progressive Christians to level indictments at the Bush administration.

In addition, emergent and post-evangelical expressions of Christianity were going strong. Many disaffected and disillusioned evangelicals were looking around for theological positions that critiqued how evangelicalism had been co-opted by politics. With its strong criticisms of Constantinianism, Anabaptist theology also fit that bill.

And so it was during these years that many progressive Christians, in using Anabaptist theology so effectively to critique the Bush administration and the politicization of evangelicalism, convinced themselves that they were Anabaptists.

But they weren’t Anabaptists, not really.

Why weren’t progressives Anabaptists? Two reasons.

First, there’s more to Anabaptist theology than its peace witness. Anabaptist theology also espouses a robust ecclesiology, the church as the locus of life and political witness. This aspect of Anabaptist theology doesn’t sit well with many progressive Christians, who would rather work as political activists than invest in the daily life of a local church. To be sure, many post-evangelical progressive Christians harbor nostalgia for the local church, memories of hymn sings, youth camps, vacation Bible school and pot luck casseroles. But at the end of the day, progressive Christians tend to think calling Congress, community organizing and marching in protests are the best ways to make the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Second, the robust ecclesiology of Anabaptist thought and practice works with a strong church-vs.-world distinction. This contrast has been famously captured by Stanley Hauerwas: “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.” In Anabaptist thought the church is set apart from the world, its goal to be a witness to the Powers by making a stark contrast between the kingdom of God and Babylon.

Read the entire piece here.

The Pietist Schoolman on Centrist Evangelicalism

CentrismEarlier this week we published a post on David Gushee’s pieces on the decline of centrist evangelicalism.

So is there an impending “divorce” between conservative evangelicals and progressive evangelicals?

I always appreciate Chris Gehrz’s perspective on issues like this.  Over at The Pietist Schoolman he rejects Gushee’s “divorce” thesis and suggests, like I did, that centrist evangelicalism is not going away anytime soon.

Here is a taste:

What’s least clear to me is what Gushee, having encouraged evangelical readers to accept the inevitability of a “divorce,” wants them to do about it. Should denominations, churches, and individuals withdraw their membership in the National Association of Evangelicals? Should self-identified “progressive” evangelicals stop giving money to World Vision because it backtracked on affirming the relationships of its LGBT employees? Should “conservatives” stop supporting InterVarsity because it (kind of) endorsed Black Lives Matters? Should one group or the other stop sending its teenagers to evangelical colleges or its future pastors to evangelical seminaries?

Read the entire post here.

Is Centrist Evangelicalism Dead?

EvangelicalDavid Gushee thinks that the category “centrist evangelical” is no longer useful.  Here is a taste of his piece appearing today at Religion News Service.  It should be read alongside his original piece “Conservative and Progressive Evangelicals Head for a Divorce.”

…the Gospel message ought to be a broad enough platform for shared life in Christian community. And yes, worldly politics has been allowed (disastrously) to infect Christianity. But still, I am not sure the two sides of the evangelical world actually share the same Gospel, at least in terms of what each side emphasizes. Progressive evangelicals tend toward a Radical Reformation type Gospel centered on the justice-advancing ministry and teachings of Jesus, and on his message of the kingdom of God as holistic salvation and social transformation (see Stassen/Gushee, Kingdom Ethics). Conservative evangelicals mainly lean toward a Calvinist/Lutheran Gospel centered on Christ’s work on the Cross for the saving of souls, on biblical inerrancy and pure doctrine, and on conservative social values. Of course, even these different Gospels (and there are other variants) should not make cooperation impossible, but the differences are quite profound.

Several admittedly quick thoughts on this particular part of Gushee’s argument:

First, if an “evangelical” is the religious descendant of the so-called “neo-evangelicals” of the 1940s and 1950s, then I am not sure the “Radical Reformation” Christians Gushee references can be truly called “evangelicals.”

Neo-evangelicals such as Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and John Harold Ockenga believed that the Gospel centered on, to use Gushee’s phrase, “Christ’s work on the Cross for the saving of souls.”  Since the 1960s, as historian George Marsden has chronicled in his history of Fuller Theological Seminary, these evangelicals have been divided over inerrancy. But even those who rejected inerrancy still believed that doctrinal issues were a primary concern in defining the movement. The emphasis on the Cross is not just a Calvinist or Lutheran idea.  It has also been important to Pentecostals, Methodists, and a whole lot of other groups with Pietist and Wesleyan-Holiness roots.  Wasn’t John Wesley’s heart “strangely warmed?”

Christians who support “justice-advancing ministry” and the “teachings of Jesus” and “holistic salvation” and “social transformation,” but fail to stress the belief that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world and that a conversion is necessary to salvation, do not historically fall into the evangelical camp.

Don’t get me wrong.  Evangelicals have embraced social justice in the past and they continue to embrace it in the present. Henry and Ronald Sider come to mind. So do all of the young, socially-conscious evangelicals I encounter at Messiah College.  But without the Cross, and the message of salvation preached by people like D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and others, it is hard to say that these “Radical Reformation” Christians are evangelicals.

Take William Jennings Bryan for example.  He was a fundamentalist who cared about doctrine (especially creationism) and the Cross.  His economic policies were close to socialism.  He had a lot in common with the Social Gospel Movement (and the kind of “Radical Reformation” Christians that Gushee invokes), but I don’t think The Great Commoner belongs with Washington Gladden or Walter Rauschenbusch, the leaders of the Social Gospel efforts. Bryan believed that social justice and the care for the economic plight of common people were inseparable from the Cross and conversionism.

In the end, I think that centrist evangelicalism is still alive and well.  I see more and more “doctrinally pure” born-again Christians trying to live out their faith in  ways that might be described as progressive.

But when culture war issues enter this picture things get complicated.  Can someone who is pro-choice or supports gay marriage still be considered an evangelical?  Is it possible to believe in the authority of the Bible and the centrality of the Cross and still have progressive views on these issues?  Most American evangelicals (but not all of them) would say no and they would have the history of evangelicalism and the history of the Christian Church as a whole on their side.

If evangelicals are defined solely by their positions on social issues, then perhaps the center is eroding, if there was ever a center to begin with.

Or perhaps the center is now occupied by evangelicals who take traditional stands on these culture war issues but are willing to engage in fellowship with, rather than condemn, Christians who take progressive positions on them.

The Anabaptist Turn in American Evangelical Historiography

50f82-worthenIn some respects we are all Anabaptists these days–at least those of us who are bothered by the way politicians tend to conflate the church and the United States of America.

I don’t know what the prevalence of Christian nationalism today has to do with recent trends in the historiography of American evangelicalism, but I am confident that future historians will make this connection.

My colleague Devin Manzullo-Thomas, the Director of the Sider Institute at Messiah College and a Ph.D student in American history at Temple University, has a nice review in The Conrad Grebel Review of three important books on the history of American evangelicalism.  They are David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism; Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, and Molly Worthen’s The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

Here is a taste of his piece, “The Not-So-Quiet in the Land: The Anabaptist Turn in Recent American Evangelical Historiography.”

In the historiography of North American Anabaptism, evangelicalism typically functions in one of two ways. Some Mennonite-produced analyses have depicted evangelicalism as a threat to Anabaptist distinctives, infiltrating and infecting thought and practice on peace, simple living, and the gathered church—a so-called declension thesis. By contrast, other scholarship—often produced by Anabaptist groups outside the denominational orbits of the (Old) Mennonite and the General Conference Mennonite churches—has envisioned evangelicalism as an ally to Anabaptist values. It Gasawayargues that shared convictions have guided the two traditions toward mutual influence and fruitful dialogue—a kind of integration thesis.  Whether focusing on corruption or cordiality, though, these two divergent historiographical models share at least one conviction: Given evangelicalism’s demographic and cultural dominance within North American Christianity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Anabaptist story cannot be told without some reference to this larger tradition.

Yet for all the attention paid to evangelicalism by scholars of Anabaptism, scholars of evangelicalism have paid little to no attention to Anabaptists. Mennonites and Brethren in Christ rarely feature as actors in narratives of evangelical experience in America.  A variety of factors shapes this historiographical reality, including Anabaptists’ own ambivalence about their status as evangelicals. Perhaps the most significant factor in the absence of Anabaptism in evangelical historiography is what historian Douglas A. Sweeney has termed the “jockey[ing] for historiographical position” among two factions of scholars that he terms the Reformed and Holiness schools of evangelical history.  The historiographical models proposed by these two schools have dominated the literature on evangelicalism as it has emerged over the last three decades. In effect, they have so determined the actors in histories of evangelicalism that related groups—including groups like Anabaptists that do not always claim the evangelical label yet nevertheless moved through the 20th century in related ways—have been excluded from the narrative.

7b96a-swartzEven so, in recent years the prevailing models of evangelical historiography have proven too limiting. Several studies of post-World War II American evangelicalism published since 2012 exemplify the emergence of a new trajectory that moves beyond the “essential evangelical dialectic” of the Reformed and Holiness schools. It constitutes an Anabaptist turn in recent evangelical historiography, as scholars have inserted Anabaptists as key figures in the history of American evangelicalism.

Read the rest (with the footnotes) here.

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

Randall Balmer Spends an Afternoon With Jimmy Carter

Religion & Politics is running a piece by Randall Balmer describing a Sunday he spent with Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter while conducting research for his new book Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.  Here is a taste:

In the course of our interview in the pastor’s study, after church and photographs on the side lawn, Carter declared himself “honored” to be numbered among such progressive evangelicals as Charles Grandison Finney and William Jennings Bryan. Mark Hatfield, he said, “was a kind of hero of mine.” Carter characterized Hatfield as “a genuinely devout believer in Christ who sought to put Christ’s teachings into practice.” Carter also acknowledged that his own defeat in 1980 followed by Hatfield’s retirement from the Senate in 1997 had left a void, at least among elected officials. Carter lamented the “new definition” of evangelicalism that had taken hold, one associated with “rightwing Christianity.” He recalled hearing about Jerry Falwell “giving me a hard time” in 1976, but his was just a lonely voice at the time; Falwell and his associates, however, “had remarkable success in four years in making that a driving force in American political history.” When did the president have a sense of the gathering storm as he prepared for reelection? Carter remembered that his sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, “told me that there was a stirring of animosity toward me because of some of the moderate positions I had taken on human rights and so forth and that they thought I had betrayed their own definition of Christianity. But I didn’t really see it as a serious thing until the altercation arose in the Southern Baptist Convention.” After the conservative takeover in 1979, he said, he began to recognize the ramifications of the evangelical shift away from progressive evangelicalism.

See our interview with Balmer here.  For more coverage of the book at The Way of Improvement Leads Home click here and here.