Politicizing the Non-Political

If any two branches of the church should not be political it’s these two, yet they have both become profoundly politicized, one to the Right and one to the Left. It’s easy to see why Catholics are politicized — think of Rome and Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. Politics is part of the Catholic’s DNA. Think, too, of Eastern Orthodoxy — think of Constantinople and Moscow and Alexandria and the Eastern Orthodox’s implication in the politics of those Eastern countries. Think, too, of the Anglican Communion or the Lutherans or the Reformed or Scottish Presbyterians — England, Germany, Switzerland/Holland, and Scotland. Or Ireland, the Republic and Northern Ireland. These churches have the DNA of politics.

But the two branches that ought not to be politicized are those that have suffered ostracization and marginalization. Two groups come to mind, the evangelicals in the USA who were outed and ousted in the modernist-fundamentalist debates and the Anabaptists who not only were hunted and persecuted but alongside the fundamentalists in the USA developed a non-political, anti-political and de-political theology.

But the last thirty years reveal complicity and compromise by both sides. Evangelicals tilted so far Right they are now nearly equated with the Right; about 80% vote Right. I don’t know the votes by historic Anabaptist churches but they have become more or less Left.

Jared Burkhodler and David Cramer have an exceptional book called The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Interaction of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism. If this were an anabaptist topic blog each chapter would be worthy of a separate post, but we want to draw attention to just a few themes in this very worthy volume.

What do you think evangelicals can learn from Anabaptists? Anabaptists from evangelicals?

Steven Nolt, in his essay “Activist Impulses Across Time,” and John Roth, “Anabaptism and Evangelicalism Revisited,” make some notable points. I want to mention a few, though the essays are not as concerned with the politicization of each group as my introduction to this post suggests. Another post will delve into that theme more.

1. The connection between the two is not simple or direct; they have two different histories with some important thematic similarities — like reading the Bible for themselves over against tradition (except their own — had to say that). But as Roth points out, through the first half of the 20th Century, Anabaptists generally and pervasively themselves as “evangelical” in theology — personal crisis conversions, biblical authority, cross, etc. A big issue here was evangelicalism’s pietistic revivalism which became a bone of contention for Anabaptists in the 2d half of the 20th Century. Many thought evangelicalism was too individualistic and not kingdom/ecclesial enough. The difference is between Nachfolge (discipleship) and Gelassenheit (personal, pious surrender). Topping it off, evangelicalism got connected to patriotism while Anabaptism did not. Roth thinks this set of comparison, though, fails Anabaptism.

2. Evangelicalism’s history involves two streams (not one, ahem): the Reformed stream and the Wesleyan-Holiness stream, while Anabaptists have connected more to the second than the first stream. It is a diverse movement with a variety of activist impulses.

3. Within a few decades, and in some places immediately,  the Anabaptists — in the Radical Reformation of the 16th Century — broke from any connection of the church to the State. My view is that all American churches have been shaped by this singularly important insight of the Anabaptist movement. They were did not participate in war or in oaths. Anabaptists have at least two streams: the original groups and then the later Brethren groups who joined the original movement at the hip after absorbing more of Lutheranism’s pietism and some continental revivalism. In all, they were non-conformist and de-political and developed a theology against politics.

4. WWII re-invigorated the Anabaptists when conscription forced decision: almost 50% of Mennonites joined the military while well over 50% of the Brethren did. Harold Bender, a famous Anabaptist theologian, realized then that the bigger threat to Anabaptists was fundamentalism’s complicity in the State and not Liberalism’s theology. There’s the seeds for for the Leftism among Anabaptists and the Rightism among evangelicals; it also led to seeing one another as a foil, which Roth seeks to correct.

5. Three sketches: Anabaptists got connected to Biblical Seminary in NYC and learned their Bible at the hands of those who taught inductive method in the mode of Robert Traina. In the 1950s revivalism among the Anabaptists of the prairies of Canada was much like the Billy Graham mode. And from the 1960s on Anabaptists have made various concessions to the use of radio.

6. Now as for similarities: both strive for renewal; both have an uncomfortable relation to American culture; both see themselves as incomplete representations of the Kingdom. Roth thinks there are some very important other connections: voluntarism (conversion), biblical hermeneutics (pervasive interpretive pluralism arises), congregational polity and anxieties about the sacraments.

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  • G’day Scot,
    I’m not sure your guess “I don’t know the votes by historic Anabaptist churches but they have become more or less Left” is right. (No pun intended.)

    Many (most?) Mennonite churches (many Church of the Brethren too) voting patterns (if they have voted) in last decade reflect reality in white evangelical trends in the US (according to Andy Alexis-Baker). So while that might be true of us Aussie and British anabaptists-come-latelies (and North American neo-anabaptists), I’m not sure it can be said of the US anabaptist denominations.

    Can I be cheeky and say that from an Aussie’s perspective, unless you are voting for the Green Party, the Pacifist Party or some other small party, it seems if you are voting for Obama you are still voting for someone to the right, albeit not as far right. After all, even Australian right wing politicians wouldn’t bring back the death penalty, end universal health care, or the accessibly of university education to any Australian who had the grades regardless of income. Despite the positioning of “brand Obama”, his use of drones, killing of Osama (instead of trying him as a criminal), continued backing of Israel, increasing of military budget past that of George Bush etc. makes me think of a figure like Eisenhower, a “measured” military man, not Martin Luther King Jr., (who in the last year of his life in private self described politically as a Christian democratic socialist). After all Nixon was for higher taxation that Obama, which shows how much US politics has moved to the right. That’s not to blame our brother Obama but just to name the reality of US politics.

    The question for me is not “left” or “right” in our politics but the nonviolent politics of our Lord and his redeeming cross and resurrection (NT Wright would want me to throw in Ascension too). The question is of the politics of what Yoder called “social nonconformity”.

    Anyway, hope you’re well mate. Love your blog and your work and witness.
    Grace and peace,

  • Thank you for the highlights from what sounds like a very interesting book. I will read it. So often people describe Anabaptism reductively in terms of pacifism but I too think there is huge overlap with many forms of evangelicalism–especially with the parts of evangelicalism that do not practice infant baptism. I argue in my almost completed dissertation that John Howard Yoder was right to say that to a large extent Karl Barth’s theology was compatible with “free church” (Anabaptist) theology. There are some historical roots for this theological similarity: the Swiss Anabaptists came out of Zwingli’s Swiss Reformed church. Barth too was part of the Swiss Reformed church but rejected infant baptism.

  • From a Church of the Brethren anabaptist denominational perspective, Jarrod is right. In his 2008 survey of the CoB, Carl Bowman found that 53% of Brethren identify as “conservative” while only 12% identify as “liberal” (Portrait of a People). There may be some loud anabaptist voices vying politically for a liberal platform, but to cast Anabaptists as a whole in a politically liberal light is problematic.

    I’m interested in where you’re going with these reflections, though, and will be back for the next post – Anabaptists have gotten caught up in American politics, perhaps against both our better interests and our theological tradition. Recent conversations among Anabaptists about voting and its implications made that very clear.

  • Conrad Kanagy’s 2007 study Road Signs for the Journey: A Profile of the Mennonite Church USA is the most extensive recent statistical study of denominational Mennonites that I’m aware of. Kanagy notes (and I don’t have the text at hand to provide the page numbers) that most Mennonites vote, vote Republican, and voted for G W Bush both times he ran. I think the Anabaptist that are in tension with Evangelicals and might be seen as politicized and left-leaning are the “Anabaptist elites” (graduate school and/or seminary educated).

  • Thanks for this, Scot. Just a note that folks can get a substantial discount buying the book direct from Wipf and Stock. It’s pretty expensive on Amazon! Good seeing you at AAR last weekend.

  • Clint

    I’m not sure that evangelicals have become more “political” as much as the Democratic platform has abandoned evangelicals in support of abortion and homosexual marriage rights. It is very difficult to be well-rounded and balanced in political persuasions when, in a more concentrated fashion, one party is actively supporting what Scripture explicitly does not. I’m not strong on the fiscal side of conservatism, so I for one would be very open to voting for Democrats who took these social issues seriously. Republicans have their issues that are worth criticizing vehemently, but until Democrats back down on these issues, I will lean Right in my voting.