Evangelical Political Theologies

This is not about the right candidate; this is about how evangelicals frame their relationship to politics. And one of the best pieces to read on this topic is Geoffrey C. Bowden’s “The Evangelical-Anabaptist Spectrum,” an essay in the fine book The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (Pickwick). What Bowden is sketch the spectrum from Francis Schaeffer to John Howard Yoder and, at the same time, shows Jim Wallis began more like Yoder and is today more like Schaeffer. Yikes, that’s quite the thesis.

Do you think he gets Wallis right? Schaeffer?

Francis Schaeffer played an important role in my own thinking; as a college student he taught me to think critically about current, inadequate conditions in the church. I read everything he wrote until he wrote No Little People, and after that I bought a book or two — including A Christian Manifesto — but did not read much of him any longer. So this sketch by Bowden about Schaeffer surprised me a bit; Schaeffer was far more aggressive about how the evangelical was to enter and use the political process than I knew.  Schaeffer himself moved from fundamentalism into European evangelicalism (and this is what attracted me to him) but then shifted toward a politically-active evangelicalism. He posed humanism over against a Judeo-Christian concept of truth. Like Jim Wallis, he thought evangelicals were far too inactive politically and culturally, and Schaeffer (mistakenly, I think) blamed Pietism, but that category stuck for many. Pietists were home praying; genuine evangelicals were activists. The issue for Schaeffer was justice but he meant law, and saw in the cross the manifestation of justice (which means a kind of satisfaction, penal substitution theory of how to make things right). But Schaeffer was wary of wrapping the faith with the American flag. So he wanted to reform the laws and protest the government when it failed to live up to the law (God’s law). Bowden: “Schaeffer then mines intellectual history to construct a defense of armed revolution against a government that failed to base its laws on the Bible” (298).

Society is to be run by law; humanism is curved in on itself and one must transcend it with revelation; God’s law should be the foundation of society. Bowden observes that Francis Schaeffer almost never appeals to or quotes Jesus in his political theology. His political theory is about law, Mosaic law as the foundation.

John Howard Yoder, whose writings appear on this blog often enough, turned to other sources (the teachings and example and cross of Jesus) and to other approaches to a political theology (an ecclesial, alternative society without withdrawing). Yoder, too, was urging Anabaptist communities to be less separate and more activist. For Yoder, political theology begins with eschatology, the Kingdom of God. A social ethic is shaped by kingdom theology. God uses the state toward the church. Jesus offered a different kind of power — cross, servant, love. The Christian’s responsibility then is to leaven society through an alternative society. Sometimes the Christian will have to use “middle axioms,” that is, language of culture that has Christian roots.

Yoder’s theology, stated most explicitly in The Politics of Jesus, is framed by the cross and while he’s a pacifist, he believes the church is to challenge the state with an alternative society and with a challenging message to the state. He did not enter into political action, though.

Bowden’s essays seems intent on showing that Wallis shifted from a Yoderian framework in which the church played more of a role toward an activist phase in which he believed the way to change things was through the political process, and his other theme is that Wallis has increasingly reframed the gospel and the kingdom into political rhetoric, and Bowden’s not so sure this is about middle axioms but softening the message of the kingdom. Wallis’ entry point is poverty, though I’d say it is justice for the marginalized, especially the poor, but he’s also morphed into interests in war and budget. Bowden’s way of sketching Wallis is to compare Agenda for a Biblical People with God’s Politics and his Soul of Politics. Wallis’ earlier phase was more corporate (ecclesial) and more adversarial to the government over against the kingdom vision of Jesus. His earlier work is reserved in belief in the political process. In his later books, Bowden says, the books “leave the lofty heights of political theology behind, with very little mention of the Kingdom of God as an alternative political reality made manifest by the church” (313). The political body becomes the covenant community. He has, in other words, Americanized the kingdom of God. His focus is issues based and not kingdom based. His accusation: “Wallis crosses a line that dangerously imperils the Christian witness by mixing communities of the church and the state” (316).

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  • Branson Parler

    I haven’t read the essay yet, but I tend to concur with Bowden’s analysis on this point. In many ways, it seems like Wallis has tended more and more to become a mirror image of the right-leaning evangelicals he decried in the Bush years of the last decade. In general, I think it shows a continued lack of ecclesiology in evangelicalism. In my experience, many evangelicals who grew up leaning right now lean left, but don’t really question the underlying framework (individualism, Constantinianism, dispensationalism, etc.) that replaces the church with America.

    I don’t think Yoder’s theology precludes all involvement in the broader political realm, but he points to the church’s call to pioneer culture as our central task. A political “agenda” is merely word; a living community embodying a different way of life is a clear pointer to the Word made flesh.

  • Yup, I think Bowden has a point. I don’t follow Wallis closely–I did for a very short while. My problem with Wallis was Bowden’s problem. Wallis, from the left, has entered into the framework the Moral Majority entered from the right. It shows, I think, that our concept of “Kingdom of God” is still more an Old Testament concept than a New Testament concept. In the OT, it’s a geopolitical entity. The NT shows a Body that can exist apart from, or within, any kind of political/geopolitical framework.

  • Very interesting. Definitely need to check it out. I wonder what Bowden would have to say about the new book Moral Minority that includes Wallis in its history of the Evangelical Left and has interesting things to say about Schaeffer as well.

  • Thanks for bringing this to our attention Scot. It’s helpful because I find myself also shifting between a thoroughly Anabaptist ecclesiology and by missional dialogue with the evangelical-Reformed tradition that “seeks the common good.” That allows room for government to have a role in certain aspects of overcoming injustice to the marginalized (health care, wage theft and economic justice, immigrant rights, racialized society, etc…). For me, my shift has been less intentional and more pragmatic. After 4 years of intense urban ministry, it’s articles like this that help me realize it may be time to come up for some air and to dig deeper. Ironically, I find myself having walked the same path Bowden sees in Wallis, though my connection to Wallis has nearly disappeared.

  • I think it’s about right. Back in the early 1970s Wallis was very much shaped by the New Left, which fit in important ways with Yoder’s emphasis on the church being the church. Wallis was anti-big business, but also big government, seeing the state as a coercive force. Now he’s very comfortable in the halls of power, as that photo with Obama shows.

  • Greg,

    The book which includes this essay by Bowden (The Activist Impulse) also includes an essay by David Swartz (author of Moral Minority) on the influence of neo-Anabaptists such as Yoder and Ron Sider on the evangelical left, such as Wallis. In general, Bowden comes down harder on Wallis than Swartz does, though they might share some concerns.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I appreciate Wallis and Sojourners, but it was precisely this sense of the left’s version of the Religious Right that turned me off. Because Wallis presents one of the minority voices from the Evangelical left though, I still find him helpful.

  • Craig

    Does Wallace respect the liberal ideals of public reason, tolerance and civility? If so, he is no mirror image of the religious right. And it’d be a terrible mistake to think otherwise.

  • @Craig: Not to start a flame war, but I’ve read too many liberal columnists & bloggers to fall for that one. See: Andrew Sullivan, for example.

  • Interesting thesis but it does ring true to me. Branson wrote at #1:

    “In many ways, it seems like Wallis has tended more and more to become a mirror image of the right-leaning evangelicals he decried in the Bush years of the last decade. In general, I think it shows a continued lack of ecclesiology in evangelicalism. ”

    I think you could say that a sizable number of the Emergent movement have made a similar journey. The tendency is to define yourself as contra-Evangelical (i.e., reject Republican civil religion ), which is to still be defined by Evangelicalism, if only in oppositional terms. Progressive activism becomes the appropriate expression of faith over against conservative activism. Lost in all this is that Evangelical activism of the last forty years was a response to progressive activism of the Mainline denominations in the 1950s and 1960s. The centrality of activism as a primary expression of the Kingdom is the problem, not whether it is right or left.

  • Patrick

    I think “leftist civil religion” deserves lambasting along with “rightist civil religion” as far as we believers go.

    At some point all believers need to realize secular politics(i.e. Caesar or “human princes”) do not deserve the respect or faith of the Body of Christ nor can it serve Christ beyond the boundaries God established it for.

    IF we expect secular princes to serve God’s purposes, we’re going to be terribly disappointed. Left,middle,right. It isn’t just the modern Christian USA right that need to realize this when they face reality.