The new evangelicals:

Remembering a different evangelicalism

posted by John Schmalzbauer

Celebrating the ideological diversity of contemporary evangelicalism, Marcia Pally heralds the advent of a religious non-right. Shattering stereotypes of a monolithic conservatism, she performs a valuable service.

As Pally notes in her essay, this isn’t the first time evangelicals have hoisted the banner of social reform. Recalling the activism of nineteenth-century American Protestants, she sees the “new evangelicals” as their contemporary successors.

You don’t have to go back to the nineteenth century to find evangelical progressives. Like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, many got their start in the 1970s, building institutions that are still around today (Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action, Bread for the World).

The grandson of a Moral Majority supporter, I wasn’t exposed to this part of evangelicalism.  Like grandma, I assumed that most evangelicals “prayed Republican.”

This began to change during my young adult years. Blessed with a well-stocked church library, my congregation owned a copy of The Cross and the Flag (1972). Edited by a trio of Christian historians, it featured a who’s who of reformist evangelicals, including Paul Henry, Ozzie Edwards, and Nancy Hardesty. Reading its indictment of Christian nationalism, I felt connected to a new kind of evangelicalism. Chapters on poverty, ecology, racism, and militarism outlined a different agenda from the one found in my grandmother’s Moral Majority Report.

As David Swartz documents in Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, the autobiographies of other evangelicals reveal similar stories of inter-generational influence. More than any other book, Carl F.H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) inspired the evangelical activists of the 1960s and 1970s. While David Allen Hubbard kept a copy under his pillow at Westmont College, Samuel Escobar read about it as a student in Peru.

It is easy to see why. Calling for greater social engagement, Henry ridiculed evangelicals for debating the morality of the card game Rook “while the nations of the world are playing with fire.”

Henry’s generation called themselves the “new evangelicals.” By using the same label to describe today’s evangelicalism, Pally hints at this religious lineage. While grateful for her research, I wish she had done more to explore these connections.

Many journalists and scholars believe that the evangelical left was a reaction to the religious right. So do many evangelicals.

Like other religious communities, evangelicalism has experienced a break in its “chain of memory.” Suffering from historical amnesia, millions of evangelicals have forgotten about their tradition’s social witness.

By telling the stories of “evangelicals who have left the right,” Pally’s book may help them to remember.

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