The Past and Presence of Progressive Evangelicalism

The Past and Presence of Progressive Evangelicalism June 10, 2015

Brantley Gasaway’s new book on progressive evangelicalism opens with a striking story. In 1985 evangelical activists marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. As the demonstration began, a spokesperson declared, “We’re showing that we are willing to pay the price, to sacrifice, to go to jail, if necessary to draw attention to all the assaults on human life that are now so abundant.” By the end of the protest, in fact, police had arrested nearly 250 marchers for civil disobedience.

To those who assumed that the reference to human life derived from a singular animus against abortion, the march’s route seemed bizarre. Activists stopped first at the White House to pray for “an end to the arms race and for the poor, its primary victims.” Outside the Soviet embassy, they prayed for the people of Afghanistan, “whose country has been brutally invaded by another arrogant superpower.” At the Supreme Court they protested the “barbaric practice” of the death penalty. Not until their final stop at the Department of Health and Human Services did marchers intercede for unborn children.

These positions seemed—and still seem—idiosyncratic. But Gasaway contends that Peace Pentecost offered a coherent social agenda. Grounded in a “public theology of community,” it stood in stark contrast to the pervasive individualism of midcentury evangelicalism. The prophetic Jim Wallis of Sojourners and the pastoral Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action contended that sin expressed itself in more complex ways than person-to-person racism, violence against a fetus, and pornography. injustice often takes social shape. Racism, which Sojourners called “America’s original sin,” could be seen in systems such as apartheid and housing policies. Sexism was perpetuated through cultural language and male privilege. None of these structural critiques demanded a progressive theology. Instead, Wallis and Sider pled that a conservative hermeneutic of Scripture demanded social justice

Gasaway’s narrative of why progressive evangelicalism didn’t carry the day is expertly told. (The short story is that it was politically homeless. Jerry Falwell, who declared that Jim Wallis “is to evangelicalism what Adolf Hitler was to the Roman Catholic Church,” fit the electoral system much better.) The book is grounded in rich analysis of The Other Side and Sojourners magazines. And Gasaway’s prose is fluid and tight. I enthusiastically recommend the book.

My only, and relatively minor, critique is that Gasaway may have underplayed the very knotty dilemmas and disparate identities within the movement. Despite being “progressive,” the evangelical left nurtured antipathy toward Jimmy Carter in 1976. This betrayed the anti-liberal instincts of early leaders. Wallis nurtured New Left sympathies. In Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, the Anabaptist Ron Sider criticized liberal hopes for unlimited economic growth. Moreover, the evangelical left was much larger and more diverse than Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action, and The Other Side magazine. Reformed evangelicals associated with Calvin College, the Association for Public Justice, and the Institute for Christian Studies in Canada urged a less prophetic, more gradualist approach to social change. Global evangelicals, with varied perspectives on sexuality, poverty, and imperialism, added even more complexity to an already multilayered movement. The downside to this rich and diverse coalition of the 1970s and 1980s was that theological difference and ecclesiastical rivalry often undercut the prospects for political success.

For a much fuller review of Progressive Evangelicals and the Search for Social Justice, head over to the Christian Century website. It ends, with a bit more pessimism than Gasaway, like this:

 Four decades after Peace Pentecost—and more than a century since the supposed golden age of progressive evangelicalism—the movement, Gasaway says, “stands as strong as ever.” Which is to say, not very strong at all. A close examination of Peace Pentecost’s ground troops, which featured high mainline and Catholic participation, shows that the event’s evangelical image may have been inflated. If anything, conditions now may be worse than the 1980s. The issue of abortion continues to roil the movement, and the debate over homosexuality may blow it apart entirely. Progressive evangelicals continue to be marooned between a Democratic Party driven by secular elites uninterested in practices of faith and a retrenching conservatism peddling a politics of fear. The evangelical left has indeed been left behind.

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