“Evangelical” — Here we go again

ow  08sSorry to bring this up again, but I have to.

Did you see this headline in that Boston Globe essay by Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University?

Evangelical foreign policy is over

This wasn’t a news story, but it’s still worth mentioning.

So what, pray tell, would an “evangelical” foreign policy be? If the word is given it’s traditional meaning, it would be a foreign policy that is pro-free speech and religious liberty, the kind of foreign policy that is, well, pro-evangelism or, to use the word Catholics prefer, evangelization. You wouldn’t have to be an evangelical Protestant to back this policy, you’d only need to back the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But wait, that isn’t what this article is all about. Here’s the top of the essay:

WITH Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, the evangelical moment in US foreign policy has come to an end. The United States remains a nation of believers, with Christianity the tradition to which most Americans adhere. Yet the religious sensibility informing American statecraft will no longer find expression in an urge to launch crusades against evil-doers.

Like our current president, Obama is a professed Christian. Yet whereas George W. Bush once identified Jesus Christ himself as his favorite philosopher, the president-elect is an admirer of Reinhold Niebuhr, the renowned Protestant theologian.

Faced with difficult problems, conservative evangelicals ask WWJD: What would Jesus do? We are now entering an era in which the occupant of the Oval Office will consider a different question: What would Reinhold do?

So this foreign policy flows out of what this professor believes are the doctrines of evangelicalism? Would evangelicals in Africa, Asia or Latin America agree with that?

And while we are at it, there were many evangelicals (ditto for Catholics, like Peggy Noonan) who grew more and more disturbed that George W. Bush’s foreign policy was based on the belief that the actions of America could somehow eliminate the presence of evil in our world. Say what? That’s a conservative Christian view of what mankind can accomplish in this fallen, sinful world?

No way. In fact, the adjective that critics — including many evangelicals — began to attach to Bush’s view was “Wilsonian.”

What conservatives began to say was that Bush seemed to have an overly lofty view of his own mission, that he was pursuing the kind of logic that seemed rooted in a belief in relentless human progress, that the world was getting better and better and better. Might Bush say that there would be a “Christian Century” ahead? In other words, “Wilsonian” is not a conservative word.

Bacevich goes on to make a number of interesting and valid points, none of which require the use of the word “evangelical.” There is even this:

At the root of Niebuhr’s thinking lies an appreciation of original sin, which he views as indelible and omnipresent. In a fallen world, power is necessary, otherwise we lie open to the assaults of the predatory. Yet since we too number among the fallen, our own professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect. Power, wrote Niebuhr, “cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest.” Therefore, any nation wielding great power but lacking self-awareness — never an American strong suit — poses an imminent risk not only to others but to itself.

Here lies the statesman’s dilemma: You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God’s laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God’s will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results.

sin 01So an “evangelical” foreign policy is one that ignores the reality of “original sin” and its impact on the actions of people trying to do good in a fallen world?

Wait, there’s more.

We’ve tried having a born-again president intent on eliminating evil. It didn’t work. May our next president acknowledge the possibility that, as Niebuhr put it, “the evils against which we contend are frequently the fruits of illusions which are similar to our own.” Facing our present predicament requires that we shed illusions about America that would have offended Jesus himself.

Up is down and down is up.

No evangelical or traditional Christian would argue that humanity can eliminate evil in the world. That’s a viewpoint traditionally linked to philosophies advocating a very high view of man and human progress. It’s the kind of philosophy that makes statements like: “We will heal our world.” It’s the kind of perspective attached to liberal, not conservative, Christianity — like the progressive faith of President Woodrow Wilson.

By the way, I should stress that I am in near-total agreement with Bacevich’s criticism of this aspect of foreign policy in the Bush era. So I say “amen” to much of what is in this essay.

But what in hellfire does any of this have to do with the word “evangelical”? Again. It’s like the Globe wanted to say, “The Bush foreign policy was simplistic and dumb. Therefore, it was ‘evangelical.’”

MAP: From Global Mapping International.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chris C.

    Nothing you’ve quoted Bacevich saying about Neibuhr conflicts with anything I understand about evangelical theology. He is trying to create a distinction where none exists, at least as to the effects of original sin. And, as you correctly state, it is the faith of the liberal and progressive Christians that holds a lofty view of man and a sanguine hope in human progress. So the distinction between Obama and Bush is not any that arises from the difference between Neibuhr and evangelicals, as Bacevich suggests, but rather between liberal/progressive and evangelical Christians. If Bacevich has a purpose in writing other than debasing evangelicalism, I’d like to know what it is.

  • Darel

    To fully understand Bacevich’s column, you need to know a little about International Relations theory. Bacevich is a Professor of International Relations at Boston College and what we in the IR business (I am likewise a professor in this same field) call a “classical realist”.

    He is citing Niebuhr as a moral foundation for the practice of what some would call realpolitik and others would refer to simply as the nastiness which is necessary and inevitable in the anarchic world of international politics.

    Realists of all stripes have been fighting against liberals (aka “idealists”) since the dawn of International Relations as a field in the early 20th century. Woodrow Wilson is the signature liberal. Recall that many neo-conservatives refer to their own approach to foreign policy as ‘hard Wilsonianism‘. Thus from a realist perspective, neo-cons are indeed liberals/idealists — or if you prefer, “evangelical” after the fashion not only of Wilson but McKinley and Carter as well.

    Bacevich’s column is less about religion per se and more about a very very old debate in International Relations. But then, a column obviously centered on that debate is highly unlikely to get published in a major newspaper.

  • scriblerus

    You’re being too hard on Dr. Bacevich. While his use of the word “evangelical” isn’t historically or theologically grounded, it’s an historical fact that evangelical religious movements from the 18th century onwards have been linked to various reform campaigns (i.e., eliminate this great evil, e.g., slavery). Usually, the appeal goes something like this–”If we all change our lives and get others to do the same, then we can eliminate this great evil”. This appeal is not unique to liberal Christianity, unless you think William Wilberforce is a religious liberal.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Darel:

    I understand what you are saying and I see that.

    My point was a journalistic one, since this appeared in a newspaper. He assigned a word to Bush’s actions and philosophy (if there was in fact such a thing at work) that made no sense at all. It was just a jab at a straw man. The actual CONTENT of the article was, as I said, very interesting and made sense to me.

  • Jerry

    He is citing Niebuhr as a moral foundation for the practice of what some would call realpolitik

    My interest in the story is different than the focus of this posting. I’m interested in seeing how Obama’s religious understanding is going to influence his policies. As Elizabeth pointed out in a previous topic, the claims here are overly broad, but I did read elsewhere (I can’t find a cite right now) that Obama has spoken approvingly of the George Bush/Brent Scowcroft foreign policy. That would tie in with the comments about Niebuhr’s thinking in the article.

  • Harris

    You seem to be doing a sort of bait and switch here. Bacevich is rather clearly not thinking theologically, but culturally. And culturally, Bush is situated centrally in the Evangelical tradition, and in particular that conservative Presbyterian version of the same (cf. his debt to Olasky re:”compassionate conservatism.”)

    From its earliest fights with Rome, the history of that wing is one of militant demarcation; its various proponents have brought a convictional attitude that belie the formal commitment to original sin. When Gov. Palin goes on about the two Americas, she taps into some of spirit of division. This same worldview can routinely be seen on display in the militancy of a Doug Wilson, or in the web pages of World. So culturally (and theologically). As the concern for the family also plays a prominent role, there is an unmistakeable sentimentality to the worldview, as well. The word “evangelical” does fit here.

    It’s idealistic, but to confuse it with Wilsonianism would be a mistake. After all, there is virtually no evidence that Bush brought any kind of international awareness with him to his presidency. The folks who were clearly Wilsonian, were the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) crowd. Bush instead brought something else to the table: the AIDs initiative, the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan, and moral bright lines of Iraq? This blend of militancy, morality and sentimentalism is better explained by evangelical culture than by the neoconservative idealism of PNAC. Indeed it is this blend that makes Bush different from that other conservative idealist of the modern era, Ronald Reagan.

    Evangelical does seem to be the right cultural label for the Bush approach. The actions and language match the broad themes found in that tradition. Those who identify with that tradition, the evangelicals themselves, self-identify with that expression; Bush does what they would.

    As a label, the use of “evangelical’ suggests something more than an intramural IR battle, it suggests that what Bush did was transpose what was basically a domestic perspective to international concerns.

  • Dale

    From its earliest fights with Rome, the history of that wing is one of militant demarcation; its various proponents have brought a convictional attitude that belie the formal commitment to original sin.

    Huh? By most understandings, what is now called “evangelicalism” arose from the British and American religious revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even if we’re using the term culturally, that’s clearly what Bacevich is referring to in his article. This has nothing to do with a “wing” of the church in “earliest fights with Rome” that is characterized by “militant demarcation.” That’s an anachronism forced to serve a particular interpretation of church history.

    When Gov. Palin goes on about the two Americas, she taps into some of spirit of division.

    I seem to remember that it was John Edwards that “went on” about the two Americas. Is demarcation “militant” only when it comes from the right?

    This same worldview can routinely be seen on display in the militancy of a Doug Wilson, or in the web pages of World.

    Doug Wilson and World magazine are representative of but a small part of American evangelicalism, and there is no evidence that they have had any significant impact on the Bush administration. Most American evangelicals wouldn’t even know Doug Wilson’s name. On the other hand, the “neo-conservatives” were positioned in think-tanks and administration positions that had a direct impact on foreign policy. Why should we believe that they have had less impact on the Bush administration than a Presbyterian minister in Idaho and a limited circulation news magazine?

    Bush instead brought something else to the table: the AIDs initiative, the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan, and moral bright lines of Iraq?

    The AIDS initiative and women’s rights in Afghanistan are not policies that belong to a distinctly “evangelical” culture. Many people who are active in both of the specific policy initiatives have nothing to do with American evangelicalism; so to characterize the policies as “evangelical” is underinclusive.

    Those who identify with that tradition, the evangelicals themselves, self-identify with that expression; Bush does what they would.

    No, not any more than Obama does what African-Americans would do. The American evangelical movement has been, is and will continue to be theologically and politically diverse. There are a few social issues on which there is enough consensus to say there is an “evangelical” position, but on the vast majority of issues, including international policy, there isn’t. Equating Bush’s policy with evangelicalism is simplistic and false.

    If Bush does what evangelicals would do, why did the National Association of Evangelicals publicly denounce torture after the disclosure of the practices at Abu Ghraib? Why did a number of professors at leading evangelical seminaries oppose the Iraq War? Does that mean that Jim Wallis isn’t an evangelical because he criticized the Bush administration?

    The suggestion that Bush policies are “evangelical” is not far from a suggestion that all Obama policies are somehow African-American.

  • Chris Bolinger

    It’s like the Globe wanted to say, “The Bush foreign policy was simplistic and dumb. Therefore, it was ‘evangelical.’”

    Bingo! The term “evangelical” is today’s “fundamentalist”. It’s a pejorative. Period.

  • Harris

    Were we to look at the theological origins of “evangelicalism” one would indeed look at the 19th C British sources in Keswick and the Plymouth Brethren. However, culturally the term Evangelical really emerges in the postwar American environment, as a term for the cultural engagement by conservative sectarian protestants (aka the fundamentalists of the preceding generation). Even there, it is useful to note that the Fundamentalist controversy was anchored in the Presbyterian church (see Machen, Fuller).

    Politically, the emergence of a politicized Evangelical movement (aka Social Conservatives) can be seen in two waves, the first more moralistic and revivalistic (Robertson, Falwell, Moral Majority), and a second wave anchored in the Presbyterian Church in American (e.g. D James Kennedy) and in the Calvinistic wing of the SBC (e.g. Al Mohler). This second wing’s political theology arises from a mixture of southern Presbyterian thought, especially in the context of the Reconstruction and its rejection of Lincoln’s federalism (echoes could be heard in political thought state sovereignty of the early Bush administration). The compassionate conservatism of Bush is an expression of this movement, indeed the term comes fro Marvin Olasky (Tragedy of American Compassion) and editor of World magazine.

    While evangelicalism has its quietistic side (see Keswick) that can result in a certain type of moralistic politics, its engagement with culture is built on a different intellectual framework — that framework being substantially the work of the Reformed tradition of a southern Presbyterian variety (with some help from the Dutch and the notion of sphere sovereignty). In fairness, on life issues Catholic social teaching has provided significant guidance, as well.

    Substantively, the social conservatives have been the most reliable among the supporters of this administration (79% in 2004) and its war efforts. This includes support for the use of torture approximately 20% greater than that of the population as a whole according to recent polls, NAE and Rod Dreher not withstanding.

    Given this tight alliance, given other policies of the administration that seem to mirror those of the official or political Evangelical movement (the social conservatives), given the prominence of Evangelicals at key junctures (see Monica Goodling) and given that the white Evangelical community as late as 2006 still gave overwhelming support to go to war (68% according to Christianity Today) it is not a stretch, nor unfair for Bacevich to think of Bush’s war as reflecting an Evangelical ethos. To say that does not exhaust the meaning of the war, Bush’s reasoning, or of Evangelicals themselves. All are far more complex, but Bacevich gives us spectacles to understand it.

  • Dave

    Dale said:

    I seem to remember that it was John Edwards that “went on” about the two Americas. Is demarcation “militant” only when it comes from the right?

    No, but the “two Americas” of Edwards were explicitly defined economically. Sarah Palin’s appeals to “real Americans” came close to racial code words.

  • Dave

    Allow me to offer a style standard regarding the basic question of this thread.

    1) Revive the term “Christian Right,” capital C capital R, when referring to politically active, socially conservative, church-going Christians as a force in society.

    2) Other than in theological discussions, restrict the use of “evangelical” to people who, when polled, answered in the affirmative when asked, “Are you an evangelical?”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Thank you, Dave, for a moment of logic.

    Would you use “Christian Left” as well?

  • Dave

    Would you use “Christian Left” as well?

    I’d be inclined not to, for three reasons.

    Christian folks on the left haven’t been nearly as actively organized as Christians as their counterparts on the right.

    The idea doesn’t have as crisp a meaning to MSM journalists, let alone their readers. This week it could mean women’s ordinationists; next week it could be about gay marriage.

    My suggestion is in response to the poor focus with which the MSM uses “evangelical” in political stories. I don’t know of a comparable word being comparably abused by the MSM to describe the left.

  • Dale

    Were we to look at the theological origins of “evangelicalism” one would indeed look at the 19th C British sources in Keswick and the Plymouth Brethren.

    No. Evangelicalism arose from the religious revivals led by figures such as George Whitehead and Jonathan Edwards during the early to mid-eighteenth century, and crossed denominational lines from Congregationalist to Presbyterian to Baptist. Evangelical movements within the Episcopalian/Anglican church created the new Methodist denominations.

    The Plymouth Brethren came into existence in Dublin during the 1820, so they can’t be considered a foundational part of evangelical Christianty. Although dispensationalist theology owes a debt to the Plymouth Brethren, dispensationalists are but a fragment of the whole of evangelical Christianity. The Keswick convention and “holiness” churches began even later during the 1870s, long after evangelicalism had become a force in American culture.

    However, culturally the term Evangelical really emerges in the postwar American environment, as a term for the cultural engagement by conservative sectarian protestants (aka the fundamentalists of the preceding generation).

    No. The liberal/fundamentalist split occurred within existing evangelical churches. While some of today’s evangelical churches have their roots in so-called “Fundamentalist” denominations, many do not; likewise, some of the “mainline” denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, started as evangelical churches.

    Even there, it is useful to note that the Fundamentalist controversy was anchored in the Presbyterian church (see Machen, Fuller).

    The departure of Machen from Princeton seminary was one event in a number of events in the liberal/fundamentalist split. The overarching concern of the theological conservatives across denominations was the compromise of traditional Christian doctrines, like the virgin birth and original sin, in the name of “progress”. Often critiques of traditional doctrine claimed that the miracle stories could not be accepted because they conflicted with scientific principles, or that Christian social thought must conform itself to the political ideals of a liberal democratic republic. In some forms, this progressive or “liberal” theology rejected the eschatology of traditional Christianity, and instead began to place millenial aspirations in the spread of scientific knowledge and democracy. American exceptionalism, the belief that America has a special destiny in the world to spread progress and democracy, could be found in both liberal and fundamentalist churches; but because liberal theology focused Christian hope on democracy and social reform rather than the resurrection, it was a more powerful force among theological liberals. Liberals often criticized the fundamentalists’ more pessimistic view of human nature and the possibility for social reform as “anti-American.” In that sense, Bacevich has it exactly backwards: it is the worldview of liberal theology, not “fundamentalism”, that motivates Bush’s equation of God’s will with American democracy.

    To respond to the liberal critiques of traditional doctrine in a unified way, theological conservatives created a list of essential, or “fundamental”, doctrines which they shared despite denominational distinctives. Of these doctrines, only the inerracy of the scripture in its original languages was an innovation. This conflict between liberals and “fundamentalists” played out in the Presbyterian church, but also in the Congregationalist, Baptist, Methodist, and other denominations. To relate back to Bacevich’s article, the doctrine of original sin embraced and examined by Niebuhr was one of the core doctrines that “fundamentalists” retained; but Niebuhr did not share the fundamentalist views of scriptural authority. As he was neither a liberal nor a fundamentalist, Niebuhr is often described as “neo-orthodox.”

    Politically, the emergence of a politicized Evangelical movement (aka Social Conservatives) can be seen in two waves, the first more moralistic and revivalistic (Robertson, Falwell, Moral Majority), and a second wave anchored in the Presbyterian Church in American (e.g. D James Kennedy) and in the Calvinistic wing of the SBC (e.g. Al Mohler).

    “Evangelical” is not “politicized Evangelical movement” is not “Social Conservative.” You make that equation way too easily and inaccurately.

    “Neo-evangelicalism” was a term adopted by a group of theologically conservative Protestants, most notably Carl Henry and Billy Graham, who in the 1950s criticized “fundamentalist” cultural separatism, and instead advocated an active Christian engagement with all of American culture, including politics. By using the term evangelical, they referred back to the social engagement of the 19th century evangelicals. Because the mainline denominations had stopped identifying themselves as evangelical, “neo-evangelical” soon was shortened to “evangelical”.

    Jerry Falwell was never at the center of that movement; he self-identified as a fundamentalist and for a long time was very critical of Graham. Pat Robertson, as shown by the lack of support from evangelicals for his presidential bid, was even more marginal. The fact that Pope John Paul II had a more favorable rating among self-identifying evangelicals than either Falwell or Robertson provides evidence of how the media over-played the influence of the two men.

    While evangelicalism has its quietistic side (see Keswick) that can result in a certain type of moralistic politics, its engagement with culture is built on a different intellectual framework — that framework being substantially the work of the Reformed tradition of a southern Presbyterian variety (with some help from the Dutch and the notion of sphere sovereignty). In fairness, on life issues Catholic social teaching has provided significant guidance, as well.

    The idea that the PCA embodies evangelical political thought is far-fetched. Covenantal theology, the cornerstone of Presbyterian political thinking, is a theology shared only with other Presbyterian and Reformed denominations, which account for much less than half of evangelicals. Furthermore, covenantal theology is mainly concerned with the relationships among the “elect”, not questions of whether or not it is good public policy to conduct a pre-emptive war and attempt to establish a democratic government in a Muslim nation.

    “Sphere sovereignty,” a term that originates from the political and philosophical writing of Abraham Kuyper, addresses the independence of different discourses or “spheres,” all under the providence of God. Thus, the state is distinct from and not subject to the theological judgments of the church, and the church is not subject to the political judgments of the state. In addition, Kuyper was no fan of laissez faire capitalism and was one of the architects of the modern European social welfare state, so I have difficulty seeing how “sphere sovereignty” relates to Bush’s foreign policy, other than in some far-fetched conspiracy theory.

    Marvin Olasky is a journalist, not a theologian, a politician, or a foreign affairs expert. The fact that Bush borrowed a term from him does not mean Olasky had a direct line to the White House to discuss foreign affairs–unlike many of the neo-conservative (and non-evangelical) foreign affairs experts, like Richard Perle.

    Substantively, the social conservatives have been the most reliable among the supporters of this administration (79% in 2004) and its war efforts.

    Evangelical support for George Bush is not attributable to his foreign policies; if you want to say that “evangelical” domestic policy includes opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, you’d be closer to the mark.

    This includes support for the use of torture approximately 20% greater than that of the population as a whole according to recent polls, NAE and Rod Dreher not withstanding.

    First, if American evangelicals can be represented by any one association (a doubtful proposition in itself), it is the NAE, not the Presbyterian Church in America or Al Mohler. I find it extremely odd that you discard its statements as meaningless when those statements don’t suit your purposes. Second, I sincerely doubt that evangelicals stated that they supported torture; as always, the results of a poll depends on how you ask the question.

    given the prominence of Evangelicals at key junctures (see Monica Goodling)

    Now you’re getting plain paranoid.

    it is not a stretch, nor unfair for Bacevich to think of Bush’s war as reflecting an Evangelical ethos.

    You have yet to identify anything about Bush’s policy that is attributable to evangelicalism. Instead, you’ve mischaracterized evangelicalism to suit your own prejudices and to fallaciously place blame for an unpopular foreign policy. Following your reasoning, if President-elect Obama has significant foreign policy failures, it would be legitimate to describe those policies as “Black”, because a majority of African-Americans voted for Obama.

  • Dale

    Sarah Palin’s appeals to “real Americans” came close to racial code words.

    Only to left-wing pundits.

  • Dave

    Only to left-wing pundits.

    I’m not a pundit, and it sure seemed like that to me.