The new evangelicals:

Are “new evangelicals” a new phenomenon or a reversion to type?

posted by John Milbank

In her piece, Marcia Pally continues her most commendable attempt to describe the diversity of evangelical political opinion in the United States, and to provide a more nuanced account even of the evangelical right. As she suggests, the core of all evangelical political outlooks tends to be a belief in the importance of individual virtuous action and collaboration. This by no means betokens an entirely uncritical embrace of neoliberalism; the alliance with the latter has probably been forged by a horror at the (historically novel) libertarian cultural mores of the contemporary left. In actual practice much evangelical social action is more concerned with the common good than is the general run of more recent GOP attitudes, and it is, I think, partially a reflection on the political implications of this that has, as Pally notes, led many younger evangelicals to move leftwards.

As she suggests, the real surprise of the recent presidential election was a move back toward the Republican Party among evangelical voters. This perhaps suggests that many of them were morally ill-at-ease with Bush’s wars and culturally ill-at-ease with his anti-isolationism. At the same time they are not very persuaded by Obama’s lower-key perpetuation of the same, nor by attempted healthcare reforms that they may regard both as ineffective and insufficiently mutualist.

The remaining issue to my mind concerns whether the “new evangelicals” are simply reverting to type—since the entire political history of evangelicalism in the US has favored the left more than the right, as Pally points out. I would suggest, however, reasons why this may not be the case.

In the US, as to a degree in the UK, evangelical, like religiously dissenting (i,e., non-Catholic or Episcopalian, though Christian) opinion has largely aligned with liberalism, because of a shared focus on the individual actor. Now that contemporary “conservatism” has itself embraced liberalism, it may well appear more congenial to evangelical opinion, which from William Wilberforce onwards has tended to combine the capitalist market with voluntary—if very systematic—charity. The abortion issue is not the only explanatory factor here. It therefore follows that, if younger evangelicals are deserting “the right,” one has to ask whether they are also deserting traditional liberalism. My encounters with evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic suggest that this is indeed emphatically the case.

Evangelicals are deserting the right because they are deserting liberalism. And they are doing this because they are deserting, or at least redefining, evangelicalism as traditionally understood. This is witnessed by the modification or sometimes abandonment of the central defining feature of traditional evangelical doctrine, namely, the penal substitutionary theory of atonement. Historians such as Boyd Hilton have shown how this thoroughly economistic and contractualist account of Christ’s death have often aligned in modernity with an embrace of capitalist market economics. Equally, evangelicals have been influenced by the charismatic movement, which has accentuated a stress on the emotive and the communal. Again their scripturalism is leading them into a “post-protestant” questioning of the Reformation reading of the Bible and an increasing worry that the Reformation may itself be responsible for the secularization process. Finally, the making of common cause with Catholics over abortion and other issues has led to a steep decline in traditional anti-popery. Both the new opening to Rome and the charismatic influence involve a heightened sense that being a Christian involves being a member of the body of Christ or the Church: this is after all writ clear by St. Paul.

This new emphasis leads in turn to a heightened appreciation of the social as relational rather than as a mere field for individual pious heroism. It is here striking that the new evangelical Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, cites Catholic social teaching as the major influence on his thinking tout court, and has a Benedictine spiritual director. Within the British Labor party, young evangelicals are newly to the fore, attracted by the Catholic social teaching-driven agenda of Jon Cruddas, key policy adviser to Ed Miliband, current head of the Labor Party. This is, for evangelicals in the UK (though not for non-evangelical Methodists) a largely novel embrace of Christian socialism. Exactly parallel new leanings are evinced by many of the younger American evangelicals whom I have taught, who all witness a new sense that they are first and foremost Christians who see the formation of a spiritual and just community as an integrally religious task. In consequence, they are now much more bothered than any of their forebears by the modern dominance of the idol money that tends to subvert human relationality and reciprocity.

Thus while Pally is wholly right to say that evangelicals continue to be suspicious of the State as the main locus of social and economic justice, evangelicals are now tweaking this in a rather more associationist and rather less individualistic direction that makes it more and more converge with the Catholic outlook on these matters. As Pally points out, 65 percent of evangelicals ages 18-30 favor more governmental aid to the needy. Therefore, I submit that the “leftward” shift among some evangelicals is a new phenomenon both theologically and politically, and not simply a reversion to type or a different expression of a perennial American Protestant repertoire.

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One Response to “Are “new evangelicals” a new phenomenon or a reversion to type?”

  1. avatar Lilian Calles Barger says:

    While I share many of Milbank’s view points, I do not believe that young evangelicals are embracing traditional Catholic social teaching with its hierarchical approach to the social order. The new evangelicals have been influenced by liberation theology and various social movements, including feminism, and look to the social order as the place where God makes his salvation known. The secularity of the world has led to a new definition of salvation, away from the individual, on which substitutionary theory of atonement is based, to include political, social, and economic salvation. While many consider liberation theology dead, it and various strands of social Christianity continue to influence the entire body of theology. No longer can one speak of individual salvation or assume a social hierarchy. Even the most conservative of the evangelicals now espouses some form of social salvation and a modified patriarchy. That’s why the conservative have been so politically active, not abandoning the world, to assure the social order aids God’s salvation plan. The question now is what is the nature of the salvific social order?

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