The new evangelicals:

A return to the original agenda of Christ

posted by Joel Hunter

I am one of those evangelicals who, in Professor Marcia Pally’s words, have “left the right.” As a former President-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, I resigned that position and all other positions that would box me into ideologies that were becoming insidiously narrow and negative. As a 64-year-old pastor, I may not yet be representative of my generation or profession in my political openness, but I am one of a growing number of white evangelicals who are making biblically-based decisions on an issue-by-issue basis, in a wider circle of conversations than ever. We are put off by the “hardening of the categories” that is stifling not only intellectually, but also spiritually.

Part of this transition is cultural. As Professor Pally pointed out, it is not only a generational shift that naturally declares independence from traditional religious reactions (especially paternalistic ones). The transition is for others a distancing from the institutionalism of the church and the inelasticity of a movement that began as personally charitable but has become dogmatically xenophobic.

The greater part of this change, however, is a generic return to the original agenda of Christ. As the world becomes more complex and less predictable, we are seeing a “back to basics” trend. It is an expansion beyond a preoccupation with the more recent monitoring of sexual matters, to a more ‘whole life’ helpfulness. It is the turn from accusation to compassion, and it is much in keeping with the priorities and example of Jesus. His focus on helping the most vulnerable is also our concern. Thus more and more evangelicals are expanding the definition of pro-life. They are including in a pro-life framework concern with poverty, environmental pollution, AIDS treatment, and more. And issues like abortion are being expanded from focusing on only “in utero” concerns—increasing numbers of evangelicals now see prevention of unwanted pregnancy and support for needy expectant mothers as pro-life.

More evangelicals simply want to live our lives according to our spiritual values—unselfishness, other-centeredness, non-presumptuousness—so that when people see “our good works, they will give glory to our Father in heaven.”

Lastly, practically all sustainable change is relationally based. In an increasingly connected world, an increasing number of evangelicals are developing a broader range of relationships, both interfaith and inter-lifestyle. These make us think twice before we declare those who have different values as adversaries. As we “love our neighbor,” we want to cooperate in ways that express our own values while allowing others to express their own.

Professor Pally has established a masterful and nuanced summary of the change in the evangelical political voice. I hope that we will continue the dialogue.

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2 Responses to “A return to the original agenda of Christ”

  1. My only reservation about the concept of evangelicals “leaving the right” is that it somewhat implies that this is an innovation. The innovation may well have been moving to the right in the first place. I’m wondering whether the writers and readers of The Immanent Frame are familiar with Donald Dayton’s fairly recently republished “Discovering an Evangelical Heritage” (Baker Academic 2011). My own academic work explores the ancient connection of the gospel with the “right”—“Church Gospel and Society: How the Politics of Sovereignty Impregnated the West” (Wipf and Stock 2011). My latest offering “The Fall of the Church” is due to be published later this year. As I see it, this is a move back to our roots that three generations of renewal have been intended to achieve!

  2. avatar Caroline Williams says:

    The idea of reclaiming the “Pro-Life” stance reminds me of a New York Times article by Thomas Friedman called “Why I Am Pro-Life.” He declares that if someone is to commit to being Pro-Life, then he or she needs to back that up with other Pro-Life views when it comes to supporting environmental legislation designed to protect clean air and water or supporting gun control laws or even supporting programs that aim to educate the public on matters of health and nutrition. The fact that the very idea of being “Pro-Life” has been co-opted by the anti-abortion movement seems to ignore the need for life to be at all protected after the birthing process is complete. Friedman proposes that anti-abortionists should rename themselves as “pro-conception-to-birth, indifferent-to-life conservatives.”

    Indeed, I would agree that hot-button issues such as abortion and marriage equality are portrayed in the news media as being the most significant issues for evangelical Christians to the extent where Christians themselves are convinced that they are. Last year, I spoke on a panel about what it’s like to self-identify as both a Catholic and a feminist, and how I reconcile the two. Of course, the first question asked during the Q&A was how my religious beliefs affect my political views. I responded by saying that my political views generally come from my sense of morality, which in turn is definitely impacted by my religion. For instance, my feelings about immigration reform absolutely align with the Church’s teachings about hospitality and providing a home for refugees. My views about how we should interact with the natural environment are also largely influenced by Catholic Social Teaching, which states that we are called to be stewards of Creation, and it is our obligation to take care of the earth and the people living on it. These issues, along with many others, are significantly more important in determining my political views than my stance on abortion, despite what the news media tells me I should believe.

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