The new evangelicals:

Rethinking that word “evangelical”

posted by David P. Gushee

Professor Marcia Pally aptly describes the evangelical polyphony of our time. Despite the dreadful habit of newspapers of using the term “evangelical” to mean “white social conservative bloc of the GOP,” contemporary evangelical political views are much more diverse than that.

As Pally notes here and in her book, The New Evangelicals, it is not accurate to say that the diversity of evangelical politics and public engagement is some kind of new trend. What is actually the historical aberration is the way a distinguished global movement within Protestant Christianity that has always had diverse politics got swept into the Republican Southern Strategy of the Nixon years and beyond. It is a terrible historical accident that the movement that gave us the abolitionist William Wilberforce and the firebrands of the early Social Gospel movement became identified, after 1972, with reactionary white right-wing politics in the American South.

Evangelicalism is best understood as a global renewal movement within Christianity. An evangelical is someone with a passionate love for Jesus Christ, a commitment to the authority of the Bible, an embrace of some version of historic Christian orthodoxy, a desire to spread their faith through word and deed, and a hunger to see this world become what God intended it to be from the beginning. Evangelicals have included confessional Lutherans, ardent Calvinists, reformist Methodists, pacifist Anabaptists, liberationist African-Americans, and tongue-speaking Pentecostals, among many others.

There is no intrinsic reason why a theological-pietistic movement of this type should have a particular shared politics and certainly not a particular shared conservative politics in the US. Even a cursory tour of today’s global evangelicalism reveals all kinds of political affinities and activist commitments, as Pally argues in her essay.

I suggest that what is really happening is that the odd disturbance of global evangelicalism by right-wing Southern Strategy American politics is an aberration that has not quite run its course but is beginning to weaken. What is emerging instead is the robust political polyphony that was there all along. The politicized parachurch lobbying groups of right-wing evangelicalism are weakening relative to the educational, congregational, and missional efforts that have shaped a healthier evangelical public ethic for decades and will do so well into the future.

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