Marcia Pally’s incisive essay on “the new evangelicals” highlights a relatively small but growing population of white evangelicals who appear to be embracing broader, less conservative visions of the common good, and public policy views (at least partially) more in line with Democratic politics than their recent forebears. While her descriptions presumably are not limited to those who necessarily call themselves “new evangelicals,” she does invoke the work and ideas of public evangelicals who clearly self-identify as such. This points to an interesting observation worth considering here: to assume the mantle of newness is to make an ideological statement as well as a historical claim.
The new evangelicals
Marcia Pally’s post tracks the important fact that contemporary American evangelical social and political engagement is fragmenting. She rightly observes that such fragmenting is not historically novel, and is a self-consciously critical response to the power of the Religious Right.
To read of “robust polyphony” among evangelicals was especially welcome to me, as I addressed this phenomenon in a recent ethnography, Emerging Evangelicals (NYU Press, 2011). As a cultural anthropologist, I explored the identities fashioned, practices performed, histories claimed, institutions created, and critiques waged among evangelicals influenced by the Emerging Church movement. Pally’s astute analysis returned me to a question I stopped short of fully developing: does fragmentation equal change?
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).
As both Marcia Pally and David Gushee note, there is no historical reason why evangelicalism should identify with a single political orientation. There is also no global reason. Research on evangelicals in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is uncovering startling political diversity. Paul Freston, one of the most informed scholars on the subject, dismisses “facile equations of evangelicalism with conservative stances.” Historical and contemporary conditions, he writes, demonstrate “the distance of these actors—indeed, total independence of these actors—from the American evangelical right.”
The American religious landscape is being altered by what Mark Noll calls “a more pluralistic evangelicalism than has ever existed before.”
In the movement Marcia Pally describes, evangelicalism is no longer synonymous with white evangelicals. Conservative black churches have long held a pro-life, pro-marriage ethic in balance with energetic social activism. Immigrant churches, the fastest-growing segment of Christianity, tend to be conservative theologically while progressive on issues like poverty and immigration. The increasingly influential Hispanic community naturally aligns with this movement. As Samuel Rodriguez puts it: “Where Billy Graham meets Dr. King, that’s where you will see the Hispanic Christian community emerge.”
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.
On the evening of Good Friday 2013, several thousand young evangelicals will file into The Church at Brook Hill in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in that Red State. They will open up their Bibles and then for the next six hours listen as a slender, boyish-looking pastor walks them through long passages of Scripture verse by verse and tells them to forsake material goods and self-indulgence and devote their lives to serving Jesus. All around the country other gatherings of young people will tune in by simulcast. David Platt, author of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, is not a typical celebrity pastor. He does no book tours, doesn’t drive a Bentley, seems to have no opinions about politics, and hardly ever has time for even a brief interview with reporters. And he’s not the stereotypical Southern Baptist power broker.
Baptist minister and sociologist Tony Campolo was arguably the first to send shock waves through the ranks of the religious right two decades ago when he responded to a question about his political leaning—Democrat or Republican? His reply: “It depends on the issue.”
Fundamentalists scorned him, calling him an apostate, but his assertion gave a new generation of evangelicals permission to scrutinize political platforms and move to the middle. The middle seemed to make more sense to younger followers of Jesus who were hearing and heeding calls to humanitarian causes at home and abroad.
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.
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.
Post-election reporting that 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney got little attention in the news because most journalists thought it wasn’t news. Evangelical support for the GOP has been consistent; even Romney’s Mormonism didn’t put them off. So election analysis approached white evangelicals as it usually has: as religio-political lemmings, all voting Republican for all the same reasons.
Yet where there was once the appearance of a monovocal evangelicalism there is now robust polyphony—what theologian Scot McKnight calls “the biggest change in the evangelical movement at the end of the twentieth century, a new kind of Christian social conscience.” This deserves our attention because most politics does not happen at elections but in between, when policy is negotiated and implemented. Current shifts in evangelical activism have re-routed the flow of evangelical money, time, and energy, and are changing the demands on the US political system. This essay investigating the shift is based on seven years of field research in evangelical books, articles, newsletters, sermons, and blogs, and on interviews with evangelicals, ages 19 to 74, across geographic and demographic groups—from students in Illinois to retired firemen from Mississippi, from former bikers to professors and political consultants.