Progressive evangelicals

Kudos to Ayelish McGarvey for her article "Reaching the Choir" in the April American Prospect.

In an insightful and very helpful discussion of American evangelical Christian voters, McGarvey gets right many things that nearly everyone in the mainstream media — and nearly every Democratic strategist — gets wrong. McGarvey rightly ridicules Morley Safer for gullibly embracing the self-promoting, arbitrarily self-appointed spokesmen of the fundamentalist right as representative and typical stand-ins for all evangelicals. McGarvey instead talks to people like Steven Waldman, John Green and Christian Smith — experts who have seriously studied evangelicalism. She talks to Jimmy Carter, Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo — three indispensable voices for understanding progressive evangelicals. And she makes stops at Baylor and Wheaton — hallmark institutions of evangelicalism.

GRTWT, but here in summary are some of the things I think McGarvey gets right:

1. Conservative theology does not correlate to conservative politics.

Compelled by evangelicalism's conservative theology but averse to the right wing's intolerance and lack of charity toward the poor, they occupy a curious political middle ground. Every four years they independently evaluate the state of the union through the lens of a Jesus-centered faith. But their concerns extend beyond the conservative morality issues of abortion and gay marriage to progressive matters of social justice, America's role in the world and care for the environment.

2. Concern for the poor — "the least of these," "orphans and widows in their distress" — is of special concern for many evangelical Christians.

3. The majority of evangelical Christians don't like the harsh dogma of the religious right.

This bloc lacks the fervor of traditionalists like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell; indeed, most of its members are offended by the dogmatic and self-righteous antics of leaders of the religious right.

… Smith's research reveals that nearly 70 percent of conservative Christians do not even identify with or support the Christian right.

4. Faith is vitally important to evangelical Christians — shaping their lives.

Evangelical Christianity is a mighty force in the personal lives of nearly 25 percent of Americans today. … Evangelical churches are flourishing … Over and above all else, such Christians believe in a converting, transformative, and deeply personal relationship with a living Jesus Christ. Theirs is an abiding faith in the resurrected Christ as their lord and savior; only through him is eternal salvation achieved. Most evangelicals read the Bible as the inerrant and inspired word of God, trusting that all spiritual truth is found within its pages. And they believe that their faith calls them to lives of service, especially through evangelism — spreading the gospel, that is — and mission work.

(That's an astute summary of core evangelical beliefs. McGarvey even slips into evangelicalese — the subcultural jargon that Bush's speechwriter Michael Gerson is so skilled at slipping into presidential speeches.)

5. All evangelicals are not the same — there is enormous diversity and variety among conservative Protestants.

Secular liberals have long misunderstood the kaleidoscopic diversity of American evangelicalism, thereby granting polarizing figures like Falwell, [Tim] LaHaye and James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, too much credit as spokesmen. The media do no better, commonly lumping all conservative Protestants together under the banner of the religious right. This often pejorative labeling blurs the lines between distinct — and sometimes competing — religious movements such as charismatic Christianity, Pentecostalism and fundamentalism.

6. Abortion politics is a central issue for most evangelicals, but not necessarily a litmus test.

The one issue that still tethers many moderate evangelicals to the Republican Party is abortion. The GOP uses abortion as "a political football," as Jim Wallis puts it, while the Democrats' inflexibility on abortion is the single issue blocking many freestyle evangelicals from joining the party ranks. "The Democrats should at least have an open tent where people could be pro-life Catholics, for instance, and still be Democrats," Wallis argues. "Pro-life and pro-choice voters could unite together in a real effort to reduce teen pregnancy, reform the adoption process and offer alternatives to women backed into difficult and dangerous choices."

Abortion raises serious moral qualms for most evangelicals — but that does not mean they demand, or even are comfortable with, a starkly anti-abortion political agenda. What they require from political leaders more than anything else on this issue is the sense that those leaders view this issue with moral seriousness. Bill Clinton's formula — "safe, legal and rare" — won over many evangelical voters. That could still be a winning formula for Democratic candidates.

(Note that the abortion rate among evangelical Christians is indistinguishable from the abortion rate of the rest of the population. That may tell us more about likely actual voting behavior than any issue-oriented polling does.)

7. Both Democrats and Republicans misread and misunderstand the voting patterns of many evangelicals.

Late in 2001, Karl Rove dropped by the American Enterprise Institute to share his thoughts on the Bush presidency and electoral strategy … Rove lamented that the Bush campaign had failed to rally all corners of the party faithful, particularly some 4 million white evangelicals, fundamentalists and Pentecostals who stayed home on election day. "[Y]et they are obviously part of our base," he declared.

But that might be an overstatement. … Rove could be taking a little too much for granted.

Let's hope so.

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  • Marley

    I see the prochoice issue spearheaded by organizations outside the democratic party. Affiliated with it, sure; but that’s has a lot to do with the stance on the right. If I send money or join NOW, that’s different from donating to the DNC. I don’t understand why a person would choose to vote republican, against all their best interests, just because the democratic party aligns with prochoice groups. It’s smart of the right wing politicians in a most cynical way, because it impels people to vote against their own interests on many other issues. And many republicans are prochoice off the record anyway. I guess that’s the cynical brilliance of wedge issues.
    Also, just as it would have been nice to hear leaders in the muslim community denounce islamic terrorists after 9/11, it would be really nice to hear the evangelical leaders denounce the fundies-in-charge today.

  • Jon H

    BTW, the highbrow WBEZ (Chicago) talkshow “Odyssey” did a show about the Christian Left recently.
    The Christian Left
    For the last two decades, the Christian right has defined religious politics in America, but liberal Christians were once an influential voice.
    Douglas Rossinow — Historian at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and author of the book, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America
    Kenneth Wald — Political scientist at the University of Florida, director of the Center for Jewish Studies, and author of the book, Religion and Politics in the United States
    A real audio archive is available at
    A listing of March programs is at
    It’s a good eclectic show with lots of learned academic guests. I’m also looking forward to their April 1st show. ;^)
    Their last one, in 2002, was good:
    The Risks of Reinterpreting Art
    Glenn Mendler – Joseph Campbell chair of Mythology at Lucas College, and author of Chewbacca’s Purse: Androgyny and Sexual Dissonance in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
    Michael Barrett – editor of the Cambridge Review of Literature, Massachusetts’ oldest bound periodical
    Diane Peabody-Lopez – Art Historian at the University of Lawsonomy, and author of Lizards and Lute Players: Carravaggio Revisisted
    Funniest part was when one of the panelists said that Picasso’s Guernica doesn’t show people screaming in terror, it’s actually a moving statement about poor dental care in Spain.

  • yam

    this is a (probably misplaced) question for fred and others here.
    i’m looking for a something that can explain the differences of protestant (sects? i don’t know what y’all call each other…). what are the differences between lutherans (and the elca, missouri synod etc. that subdivide lutherans) and methodists, baptists, etc.?
    i was raised catholic in the midwest and the only other religion we knew of were lutherans. now, what i’d like to know is there some book or web site or something that can help me out as a sort of field guide to protestants? i admit total ignorance and i’d like to be able to follow along. i guess i don’t even know what evangelical means in the correct term. i always thought it was a synonym for fundementalist, yet i can see from this article that i even misunderstand that.
    i know i sound hopelessly ignorant, but any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • Nell Lancaster

    something that can explain the differences of protestant (sects? i don’t know what y’all call each other…)
    Yam, I can’t help you with a handy source for the answers on distinctions between Protestant denominations (that’s the term, greatly preferred to ‘sects’), but I’m glad you’re asking and don’t think you sound hopelessly ignorant at all. I spent a fair amount of time twenty-five years ago explaining the distinctions between different strains of Protestants (as I dimly understood them) to my Catholic-raised partner, and he gave me a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of Catholicism.
    I was raised in the Episcopal Church, which is closer to Catholicism in its liturgy and theology than most Protestant churches — because its historical origin wasn’t a theological division but a power play by Henry VIII. Truthfully, most Protestants themselves have a weak grasp of the differences between the various denominations. I look forward to other comments that can help answer your question.
    You might pose it also to Allen Brill at

  • Fred

    Yam —
    There’s a really nice resource book called “How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook” that does a nice job of summarizing not just all the various flavors of Christianity, but many other religious traditions as well.
    The editors are Stuart M. Matlins and Arthur J. Magida.

  • Kevin Carson

    Recently, a reporter interviewed “Doctor” Ronnie Floyd, the odious pastor of a local megachurch (First Baptist of Springdale, Ark.–membership 10,000).
    Floyd said that Bush was God’s man, because of his stand on the abortion issue. The reporter asked him about fiscal and economic issues, etc. Floyd’s response: “mistakes” in those areas were not a direct defiance of God’s will; legalized abortion and gay marriage were. Of course, this begs the question of whether the well-meaning Bush regime is making honest “mistakes,” or is a bunch of lying crooks impoverishing the American people to enrich its own cronies. Could they just be using red meat “culture war” issues to lead the gullible around by the nose, so they can promote their real economic agenda? Do ya THINK?
    The reporter then asked Floyd if Bush might just be using abortion and gay marriage as wedge issues to distract Christians from his worldly record. Floyd reacted strongly, the reporter said, because this was obviously the weakest part of his case–but he provided little in the way of a substantive response.

  • Lisa

    I take issue with the idea that Democrats are unwelcoming to prolife Catholics. As long as those prolifers only apply their position to themselves, allowing abortion to remain legal in the U.S. for those who want it, I can’t imagine any sane Democrat having a problem with it.

  • yam

    fred and nell,
    thanks for the info. i’ll look up that book and ask at
    denominations. darn, i knew that…