The Limits of a Narrow Evangelical Advocacy

Today’s guest post comes from David Bronkema, Associate Professor of International Development at Eastern University near Philadelphia. He is author of “Foster Just and Sustainable Economic Development,” in Glen Stassen, ed, Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War and co-author of the just-released Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures.

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At the book launch in Chicago last Friday of Advocating for Justice, former Ethiopian refugee Mawi Asgedom held up the book, opened it up to page 29, showed it to the audience, and said: “I love this chart!” The chart he was referring to was the one we had compiled that showed how narrowly-scoped evangelical advocacy efforts have been in the 20th and 21st century. “This chart should be our measure for how we are doing,” concluded Asgedom after walking the audience through it, “and Jesus’ chart would look very different from ours.”

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Photo credit: Sam Doyle

Simply put, evangelicals fail to even come close to measuring up to their mainline counterparts when it comes to the breadth of issues they are tackling in terms of holding individuals, governments, and principalities and powers accountable for the way power is used and abused in ways that prevent human flourishing. They are virtually absent from advocating on economic issues that range from land rights to debt relief; from environmental issues that range from biodiversity to pollution; from security issues that range from militarization to the training of police forces in other countries; and from governance issues that range from corruption to term limits. Their advocacy efforts have been concentrated on social/civil issues that deal with what they have defined as “the moral issues of our time,” ranging from abortion to sexual ethics, and on judicial issues that deal with immigration and prison reform.

What explains this narrow scope of evangelical engagement in advocacy issues? There are three primary reasons. First, evangelical engagement with advocacy issues was severely limited by the fundamentalist/modernist split in the early 1900s. What had been a healthy integration of evangelism and social outreach was broken apart. The split led evangelicals to focus more on Jesus’ divinity than on his humanity, truncated an interest in doctrines of creation, providence, and the new creation and limited theological discussion over the way that power was structured and used by a host of actors in society in economic, environmental, judicial, security, and governance areas, and the implications this might have for the nature and role of the state vis a vis those structures.

Second, the fundamentalist/modernist split was exacerbated by the polarization of the US political scene both on domestic and international issues, especially those dealing with the Cold War and the fear of communism. Evangelicals seldom questioned US foreign policy and were quick to label and dismiss any analyses of poverty, economics, security, and governance that considered the way that power was used and abused as “Marxist,” including those provided by more progressive Christians. What is interesting is that such analyses were proffered while evangelicals demonstrated a veritable outpouring of concern for the poor, starting and sustaining a multitude of ministries both domestically and overseas.

Third, when the Cold War ended the ideological concerns that accompanied it faded. But new challenges emerged to a robust evangelical advocacy. Politically, many evangelicals were captured by limited-issue, socially focused party politics. These revolved around abortion, school prayer, gender rights, and homosexuality. The evangelical position within the American political context reinforced their tendency to set aside other issues. Questions of “poverty and “justice” involved in the categories of economic, judicial, security, and governance policies fell outside the realms of evangelical thought, theology, and praxis. Evangelicals like Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, Rene Padilla, Orlando Costas, Vinay Samuel, Chris Sugden, and Nicholas Wolterstorff began to urge evangelicals in the 1970s to seriously consider the many Scriptural teachings that are applicable to these areas; it has taken some time, though, for their messages to begin to gain traction in the larger evangelical community.

Evangelicals have made significant strides in recovering an ability to read and act on Scripture in its totality—in a holistic way—especially as it pertains to issues of poverty and social outreach. Nevertheless, evangelical understandings and approaches to poverty still have weak points, which in turn constrain their approaches to advocacy. Until more robust theories and theologies of poverty and power are developed, the breadth of advocacy issues with which evangelicals are engaging will continue to be limited.

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