Whatever Happened to the “Evangelical Left?”

Whatever Happened to the “Evangelical Left?” September 30, 2012

Whatever Happened to the “Evangelical Left?

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend who showed me a recently published book I need to read. Rarely do I mention a book here that I have not yet read and this is no review of the book. According to Amazon.com the book’s official release date is tomorrow (October 1, 2012). I’m not sure how my friend got his copy, but sometimes books do appear before their official release date and sometimes publishers will provide advance copies for review.

The book is Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism by Asbury University professor David R. Swartz (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

The book reminded me of my earlier days in evangelicalism. The year was 1973. I was still in college and newly married. I was just beginning to read magazines like Christianity Today and Eternity and dream of an evangelical world larger than my little Pentecostal one. We thought of ourselves as evangelicals, but we tended to think of “those other evangelicals” (non-Pentecostals) as not quite “full gospel.” (We called ourselves “Full Gospel” as well as Pentecostal.) We said they had a form of religion but denied the power thereof. They were God’s “frozen chosen” and would go first in the rapture (because the dead in Christ would rise first!).

I was beginning to wonder about all that. For one thing, my grandparents belonged to an Evangelical Free church and somehow I knew that, for my family, anyway, that denomination was “okay” even if they didn’t speak in tongues or pray for divine healing (the way we did). Also, an aunt and uncle (who had been Pentecostal at one time) attended an Evangelical Covenant church—also okay. But most importantly, my uncle, president of our little Pentecostal denomination, was on the national board of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and through him I was learning a lot about the “good” of the evangelical movement beyond our Pentecostal, “full gospel” movement.

All that is to say that even then, in 1973, I was beginning to pay attention to non-Pentecostal evangelicals and what was going on among them. I was beginning to read Donald Bloesch. Of all the authors I read in Eternity (a now defunct magazine I’ve mentioned here before), I liked him best. Soon after that, as I entered an evangelical seminary, Bloesch would become and remain for many years my main evangelical mentor through his books. His warm hearted Pietism, mixed with a passion for the life of the mind (no anti-intellectualism), appealed to me. I was also then beginning to read Francis Schaeffer. His little book on “super spiritualism” really spoke to me about much of what I was experiencing among the Jesus people.

1973 was the year of the “Chicago Call”—a document that emerged from a meeting of so-called “left wing” evangelicals in Chicago. They were theologically conservative but politically and socially liberal. As I recall, Ron Sider was one of the organizers of the meeting and authors of the “Call.” Around that time I also began to read The Post-American, a magazine of progressive evangelical thought that eventually changed its name to Sojourners. Jim Wallis became its editor and you know the rest of that story.

Through The Post-American I became acquainted with the “evangelical left”—a movement Swartz writes about in Moral Minority—that has pretty much died out or been eclipsed by the so-called “religious right.” I don’t mean there are no politically progressive, liberal, evangelicals. I mean that particular movement about which Swartz writes died out (so far as I can tell). Jim Wallis is alive and well and still writing and publishing Sojourners and Ron Sider and others associated with The Post-American and the Chicago Call are still around, but one hears too little of them anymore.

That was also the general time frame in which Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield and Illinois Congressman John Anderson were active and public evangelical politicians. Anderson ran for president and, as I recall, garnered about seven percent of the popular vote. I voted for him because I didn’t like either of the mainline candidates and I thought my Post-American “friends” (I didn’t know them personally but liked them) would vote for him.

“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end” (to quote a song from that general time frame).

I’ll never forget the day I was driving to a friend’s wedding in another state and listened to a public radio broadcast of two evangelical political demonstrations in Washington, D.C. I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but it was sometime in the later 1970s. Jerry Falwell was leading one “march” and Jim Wallis was leading the other one. The NPR reporter was playing up the fact that both were “evangelicals.” (I think this was around the time Jimmy Carter was running for president and the press was making much of his “evangelical” identity.) She, the reporter, was highlighting the presence of evangelical diversity on politics and social issues. She interviewed Jerry Falwell, but not Jim Wallis. (At least I didn’t hear an interview with Wallis.) She asked Falwell what he thought of Walls and he said (I quote) “Jim Wallis is to evangelicalism what Hitler was to the Catholic Church.” I remember almost having an accident on the highway I was so shocked. But it was a harbinger of things to come.

You have to understand that, then, Jerry Falwell was widely considered by evangelicals a separatistic fundamentalist of the same stripe as Bob Jones and Carl McIntire. Later he reinvented himself as a “conservative evangelical” and said nice things about Billy Graham, but then, in the mid-1970s, he was still widely perceived by evangelical leaders as a crank. (I know this because my uncle was on the national board of the NAE and we talked about Jerry Falwell. My uncle, a conservative man in most respects, considered us Pentecostals not fundamentalists because “fundamentalism” was Jerry Falwell and his ilk.)

Later I began to read The Other Side, another progressive evangelical publication. I studied liberation theology at The Shalom Center—a Lutheran theological education by extension center at Augustana College. It’s director, and my teacher for that course, was Jerry Folk, a Lutheran liberationist who deeply admired Camillo Torres—the revolutionary priest. I didn’t understand that admiration, but I did understand the concerns of liberation theology. I wrote my first published piece about liberation theology (a book review of an evangelical study of liberation theology). It was published in Eternity.

You might wonder if I had any exposure to conservative politics and social views. I did. Throughout high school I worked for a man who was the state leader of the John Birch society and had to listen to his long lectures about the evils of communism and American leaders who were “dupes” of the communists (including, he said, President Eisenhower!). But my family were almost all conservative Republicans. I was raised in an environment that was almost monolithically politically and socially conservative. My parents did not grieve when John Kennedy was assassinated (although they were too decent to celebrate, either). So, yes, I knew a lot about conservative political views.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I plan to. I have often wondered what became of the “evangelical left” of those heady days of the early to mid-1970s when students in evangelical seminaries all over North America were speaking out against the Vietnam War and for civil rights and equality for women and redistribution of wealth and the eradication of poverty—in the name of Jesus! I’m not saying they were right about everything. But their alternative voice among evangelicals was to me refreshing, invigorating and bracing.

I am willing to bet that most American evangelicals (who know who he is) do not consider Jim Wallis one of us, an authentic evangelical, just because he’s politically and socially progressive. So far as I know, Wallis has never questioned evangelical orthodoxy. And, so far as I know, he believes in the hallmarks of evangelical Christianity: biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism and activism. And yet, just because “evangelical” has come to be so identified with the religious right in the public mind he would probably be dismissed by both evangelicals and non-evangelicals as not one. To me, that’s tragic.

But there are still signs of hope. The other day I met a former student who, when he was my student, was a kind of late hippie and a progressive activist. I remember seeing him demonstrate (peacefully with a sign) at the dedication of a multi-million dollar religious building. Now he wears a suit and tie and his hair is neatly trimmed. He heads up a state non-profit organization to fight hunger. According to him, relying on government statistics, there are millions of children at risk for hunger in America. His organization is bringing religious groups and government agencies together to find constructive ways to use government and private funds to eradicate hunger. It’s a lofty goal, but just the kind of goal the evangelical left talked about in the heady days of the 1970s. I don’t hear that goal talked about among the religious right. So far as I can tell, they have no plan to eradicate hunger among America’s children. So far as I can tell, they are only interested in fighting “gay rights” and abortion and redistribution of wealth. (I have listened to their radio programs and read their books.) May my former student’s tribe increase.

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  • Lee

    The absence of an identifiable movement of Christ followers who are both authentically evangelical and politically and socially progressive relates also to another movement that is identifiable – the exodus of twenty somethings from the evangelical church. In my own immediate circle I have seen several who develop progressive ideas out of a deep experience of the compassion of Christ but they look around their evangelical community and get the subtle message that you cannot be true to the faith and vote left. So they leave. Among other things, they cannot fathom how it is that Christians can care so much about the death of persons in the womb (and rightly so) but care so little about those dying in war, through gun violence and death penalties, through the absence of decent health care, through hunger, through environmental damage and climate change. I look back and wonder what it would be like if the left wing evangelicals had gained more traction back in the 1970s and the church had developed a pro-life position in the full sense of the word.

    • Christopher Lake

      Lee, you mention “the absence of an identifiable movement of Christ followers who are both authentically evangelical and politically and socially progressive… .”

      It *would* be great if there were such a movement— indeed! 🙂 I don’t know if you would consider this particular “movement of Christ followers” to be “authentically evangelical,” as it does not stem from Protestantism, but what about the Catholic Church? Mother Teresa spent her life caring for the poorest of the poor, spoke out against the spiritual bankruptcy of materialism, *and* said of America that a country which legalized the murder of its unborn could not long endure. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI both opposed the Iraq War *and* preached Christ in virtually every corner of the world. The union of Christocentric theological understanding and practice, and social progressivism, for which you and others are longing, is in the Catholic Church. Check out the Catechism!

      • Lee

        You make a good point. I did not consider Christocentric, socially progressive Catholics in my comments in my previous post, but that does not mean I exclude them in my overall thinking on this matter. Your comments also got me thinking about how a revitalized movement of which we speak could be fertile soil for a kind of “unity on the ground” that would give the church as a whole a better witness even though a doctrinal unity may elude us.

  • Norman


    Your post reminds me of the Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s message to Israel and especially their leaders.

    Isa 1:13-18 Bring no more vain offerings; … they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. … Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

    Eze 34:2-4 … Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.

    Luk 14:12-13 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,

    In America the rule is to protect what’s mine and gather more to put away in our storage barns. Don’t let the poor have any of it as that’s communism which must be firmly rejected.

    There are issues I have with Jim Wallis but his response to helping the less fortunate is not one of them.

  • I already have my copy of the book and can’t stop looking through it. As a friend of David’s, I can tell you that this will be the best researched book you’ll ever read. I can’t wait to read it (once the semester ends)! Makes me nostalgic for a time I never knew.

  • James Petticrew

    The evangelical left is alive and well in the UK and I suspect predominates. I know American friends often find it hard to get round the mildly socialist perspective of much of the evangelical Christianity over here. Christians would be among the stoutest defenders of our National Health Service and most parts of our health service. For me that is because the Kingdom is expressed in its care for the least and marginalised, the sick and disabled and just like with defence the best way for a nation to provide that needed service to its citizens is via the state. I suspect as an evangelical Scot I approach these questions from the perspective of collective responsiblty we have as a culture to the poor and disadvantaged I know many of my american evangelical friends approach from the perspective of the indvidual responsiblty of the person.

    • As an evangelical-pentecostal church leader in the UK, and one who would consider myself on the social and political left, I concur.

  • Greg D

    Where is the evangelical left? They’re still here, just not in the same number as conservative evangelicals. Sadly, I believe conservative evangelical leaders from Falwell to Piper have done a good job over the past 30 years convincing American Christians that conservative theology/ideology is the only way to go… the Jesus way. And, they’ve primarily achieved this on the pro-life platform. That abortion is the single most important matter in our country and all Christians should take up the cause to fight against it. Otherwise, you must not be Christian. However, they’ve done this at the expense of neglecting other important issues such as: poverty, war, violence, gun control, social issues, and civil rights.

    I for one was one of the religious right Christians who for the most part of my 20-year Christian life took up the pro-life cause, donating thousands of dollars to pro-life organizations, picketing in front of abortion clinics, and voting for pro-life political candidates. In fact, I only voted for political candidates who were pro-life irregardless of how they stood on other issues. Abortion was indeed the litmus test in determining who I voted for. But, it was about halfway through George W. Bush’s presidency that I began to see things that I could no longer reconcile with my faith. Our military’s torture of fellow human beings, the war mongering, and the building up of our armed forces at the expense of neglecting the poor in our country. This not to mention that I didn’t think this President did much for the pro-life cause.

    All of this trickled down to my theology. And, I began to see things wrong with conservative theology that I could no longer support. The Health, Wealth, and Prosperity gospel, Christian Zionism, and biblicism have all been bred from conservative theology. I also began to see an aggressiveness coming from conservative Christians that began to concern me. Their disdain for Muslims and liberals. Their overwhelming support for gun ownership, never mind the fact that thousands of innocent people are killed each year by guns. Their support for capital punishment, never mind the fact that hundreds of people are wrongfully killed and that many of these people can be redeemed by our King Jesus. To speak out against these issues made me less of a Christian or a dare I say… a liberal. In other words, I saw less of Jesus in conservative politics and theology than I did coming from the other side.

    While I am not fully liberal, I have indeed moved more towards the center leaning slightly to the left. My favorite blogs (aside from Roger Olson) are Red Letter Christians and God’s Politics belonging to liberal ministries. While I think liberal Christianity certainly has its flaws, I now believe it more accurately reflects Jesus with a focus on inclusiveness, work amongst the poor, social justice, and a stand against war and violence. This is the Jesus I have come to know and the reason why I now gravitate more towards these types of ministries than ever before.

    So, the evangelical left is here. And, quite frankly, I’ve begin to notice a slight shift within American Christendom towards this direction. I’m seeing more ministries than ever before whose focus is social justice issues (Gary Haugen and Shane Claiborne). More ministries are now focused on bridging the gap between straight and gay people than ever before (Andrew Marin and Christian Piatt). There appears to be a new resurgence of anti-war and violence found within the Anabaptist movement (Gregory Boyd, Hauerwas, Yoder, and Kurt Willems). This not to mention the ongoing push for egalitarianism within the church (Rachel Held Evans). There are many more that I can list.

    The evangelical left is still here, but they’re likely not vying for power over the evangelical church in the same way conservatives do. Yet, another reason why I like the evangelical left.

    • Paul

      I definitely appreciate many of the concerns of the evangelical left. God’s overarching concern for justice and compassion (especially for the poor) is powerfully present through both testaments. But in answer to the question, where is the evangelical left, my concern is that they have left the evangelical camp. My heart was broken when I read the God’s Politics article on 10 Cliches Christians should avoid (http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/07/06/ten-cliches-christians-should-never-use). Here Chrisitan Piatt (and apparently Jim Wallis and the rest of his crew) deny the atonement and the lordship of Christ as well as a number of other fundamental tenets of the evangelical faith by mixing them in with a few legitimately bad cliches. I’m committed to justice for all people and special concern for the poor because my Lord Jesus had that concern and commanded it of me, but for the God’s Politics crew, Jesus is not Lord, so are they just using His words for their own take on social concerns? Like I said, I appreciate it when they call us to some of the things that Jesus called us to, but at this point, I can no longer consider them evangelicals.

      • rogereolson

        People should read that for themselves and decide if your description is accurate. For one thing, I don’t see Jim Wallis agreeing with everything Piatt says there. I know I don’t necessarily agree with everything every guest post writers says here. Even if Piatt and Wallis do not believe in the lordship of Jesus Christ (I’ve read Wallis and I am sure he does agree with that!) or the substitutionary atonement (Piatt seems to reject that theory, not atonement itself), that doesn’t mean all Christians in the evangelical left agree with them.

  • Mike

    “So far as I can tell, they are only interested in fighting “gay rights” and abortion and redistribution of wealth. (I have listened to their radio programs and read their books.)”
    Considering the generally irenic spirit in which the rest of this post seemed to be written (encouraging inclusiveness and openness to a range of ideological perspectives within evangelicalism), this penultimate rude (“So far as I can tell”) pairing of sentences was jarring in its stereotyping of evangelicals who are ideologically and politically conservative. (I take it that seeking to protect unborn human life is relatively unimportant, and perhaps even no longer morally valuable, from your standpoint? And that promoting private charity and assistance to the poor is meaningless from a moral standpoint unless one also supports greater government compelled redistribution of wealth?) Professor Olson, as a longtime admirer and fan of your work (especially its irenic tone and spirit), I am deeply disappointed.

    • rogereolson

      I didnt even hint that the lives of the unborn are unimportant. My concern is that too many in the religious right do not seem to care. About the already born.

      • Mike

        And my concern is that too many in the religious left insist that “care” = increased government power and control over the economy, and that Christians cannot be true to the gospel unless they favor granting even more power to Caesar than he already possesses. Compassion measured in government expenditures, rather than touching the lives of individuals through private acts of charity. Although there are many legitimate critiques of the religious right for lack of tolerance for difference, I have seen as many circumstances, if not more, in recent years where it is the religious left expressing hostility and intolerance to differing viewpoints within the church on matters of economic policy, and what is best for enhancing human flourishing in an economic sense. And that saddens me.

      • JoFro

        Where are you getting this idea that conservative evangelicals don’t seem to care about the already-born. Talk to any conservative evangelical and they are very much concerned about the already-born and health-care. Where they differ is how to help the already-born. On one side you have left-wing evangelicals who believe government should come to the aid, while conservative evangelicals disagree, saying minimum government interfernce is necessary.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I’m a proud member of the Evangelical Left. However, because of the influence of writers like Boyd, I sometimes try not to embrace it too strongly. 🙂

    I’m certainly a minority, even in Southern California, but I know I’m not alone. I have friends and acquaintances at church (an Evangelical Covenant Church) that lean to the left politically. But we’re definitely minorities. I do think many others would consider themselves moderates though. One of my friends just converted to a Democrat after being a life-long Republican.

    My personal experience in church has been mostly positive. I think that I’ve tended to go to churches that respected some amount of diversity. I do remember my first day (ever) at a small group/Bible study (at a Baptist church) was the day of the Gore/Bush election 2000. There was a bit of shock on the faces of the people there when I (seriously) said I had voted for Gore. Most of the people in that room are still my friends today, so I was certainly not shunned. One of them has become more politically liberal over the years. However, I did have one friend tell me that I will become a conservative Republican as I mature in my faith — as if that were inevitable. I guess, he said, it happened to him. It’s been 12 years since I started following Jesus and I’m still not drawn to it, though.

    I think my experiences my be different in some other denominations or parts of the country, so I should count myself lucky. But because of the openness at my current church in particular, I’m less likely to look to places like Sojourners for like minded people.

    But this: “I am willing to bet that most American evangelicals (who know who he is) do not consider Jim Wallis one of us, an authentic evangelical, just because he’s politically and socially progressive. ”
    This… this makes me want to drop the use of Evangelical to describe myself. I work in the Filmed Entertainment business. Most of my co-workers have a very negative view of Evangelical and associate not just with Religious Right, but also fundamentalism and homophobia. I used to tell people I was an Evangelical and then correct their views… now I’m thinking that’s too much work.

  • Rob

    Should there be an Evangelical Left? (Or Evangelical Right for that matter.) I have problems with the Christian Right but I don’t think a Christian Left fixes it. I don’t think we need balance, we need a different way of looking at things. I do not for one second think that it is within the power of today’s progressives to improve the country in any meaningful way. I can say the same about the other side. Christians who align themselves with secular ideologies are doing something very dangerous. Perhaps we can cooperate with progressives or conservatives on issues of common concern, but we don’t want to be them. They both are products of an intellectual movement that began as a rejection of Christianity. Far too many Christians (on both sides) have internalized these modern ways of thinking and are not bringing anything Christian to politics, they are just baptizing secular thought. I would count Wallis among them.

    • rogereolson

      I have to disagree about Wallis. I havent detected ideology in him, just compassion for the poor and disadvantaged and belief that the problem is so huge only government can address it successfully.

    • MikeStar

      I agree with your general statement. I honestly don’t know enough about Wallis to comment on him. I used to be one of those right-wingers who equated being a Christian with being a Conservative Republican. Now I would consider my self to be neither Right nor Left, but just an independent Christian.

  • John Mark

    Do you think it ever possible that we might see a united Christianity that is concerned with social issues AND social justice and is apolitical? I am by admission a right winger, but am aware of some of the weaknesses of the movement. I see significant weakness (in my opinion 🙂 ) in the progressive segment of American Christianity.
    It seems that many younger evangelicals are attempting to return the church to an emphasis on social justice and concern for the poor and needy. What would it take for the tribe you wish to increase–in many different denominations? We are so divided these days and it there are no signs of reconciliation in the near future.

    • rogereolson

      I think it would take strong preaching and teaching about compassion for the already born who are hungry or malnourished by those evangelical leaders young people tend to admire and follow.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi John,

      I agree with you concerning the weakness of the progressive segment of American Christianity because they have associated themselves with the brute force of government to accomplish their goals. Thus they will tend to have less enthusiastic things to say about individual liberty and private property.

      Can you define for me what you mean when you refer to “social justice”? It seems a slippery term, used as a catch-all phrase for nothing in particular, but everything that one doesn’t like in general. What does it mean to you? And how would justice be meted out in the cases that you have in mind?


      • rogereolson

        Tim, in my opinion (as you already know), “the brute force of government” can be used for good or bad. Do you think it’s worse when it is used to redistribute wealth to save children from starvation than when it is used to invade other countries whose governments our government doesn’t like? (Please don’t be offended. I’m just using your language here. I could be offended by your description of my view, but I’m not.)

        • Tim Reisdorf

          Roger, you and I have no disagreement in wanting to help children. The difference is in the means. If you feel comfortable in stealing from some to help those in need, then I can only pray that God will bless you but protect your targets from you.
          You should understand by now that I’m distrustful of government – government that comes to help and government that comes to hurt. It leads to bossing and bullying and tyranny and death – and it often starts in the ideals of a warm heart.

          I’m glad that you’re not offended by my characterization of government. I hope you can understand why I think the way I do – that government can only get people to do something that they would not otherwise have done on their own by threatening them with penalty, imprisonment, or death. I don’t mean to offend, nor to add bluster to my remarks for effect; it just is how I see it.

          • rogereolson

            But, in the case of redistribution of wealth here in the U.S., it’s not some monolithic, brutal government “stealing” from the rich; it’s the people who vote to do it and government that carries it out.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            … says the 2 wolves to the 1 sheep after voting on what to have for supper…

            Government is brute force in the hands of the majority or brute force in the hands of the minority, but it is brute force. Leaning on the reed-like excuse of “democracy” to promote theft (or any other immorality) is beneath those who fear God.

            If “stealing” is not simple theft, what is it? It’s not money that the government is “borrowing”. The only way that I could explain it is if I understood money as ultimately belonging to the State – thus, in effect, eliminating private property rights. I don’t understand what you’re saying with “stealing”, Roger. And I don’t understand how such actions avoid condemnation from the Decalogue.

    • JoFro

      The Catholic Church – look to the Cathecism of the Catholic Church

  • Richard Pierard

    I greatly appreciate Roger Olson’s gracious remarks. As an evangelical who was involved with the major figures in these heady days of progressive thinking, including the drafting of the Chicago Declaration of 1973, I am happy to see such an important personage saying positive things about it. Sadly, I did not have enough financial resources and personal connections to keep ahead in the movement and so I eventually was left by the wayside and turned to other interests, but it was a memorable era and a tragedy that we were eclipsed by the new Christian right with all its links with the evangelical establishment. The issues we regarded as so important have largely be pushed aside by the bogus issue of abortion, but the growing awareness within evangelical circles of environmental issues and especially the spectre of global warming gives me hope that in my twilight years I will witness a renaissance of biblical and genuinely Christian thinking. Don’t be led astray by that snarky book by D. G. Hart, From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, published in 2011 by Eerdmans. Those “left” evangelicals did much to call their community to repentance and they deserve to be honored and remembered.

    • rogereolson

      It’s good to see you here, Richard.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Richard,

      You may find some pushback by claiming that this issue of abortion is “bogus”. While it is true that “your issues” are not unimportant, please give others credit (or at least don’t stomp on them) when they feel called by God to promote a culture in this country that cares for the most innocent of people.


    • John I.

      Abortion is hardly an issue to which the word “bogus” ever could apply.

      • Rhonda

        Abortion is not a bogus issue to God. Read Psalm 139.

        • rogereolson

          To whom are you responding? John I. was challenging another commenter’s claim about the “bogus issue” of abortion.

  • Susan Houg

    I’m so glad to find this writer, whose Christian experience interweaves with mine in so many ways, though my family was not united around a common faith. The Episcopal Charismatic renewal stream, rather than the Pentecostal one, was where I first plunged in, or rather, where Christ apprehended me. From there to Conservative Baptist, then elder-run Bible church – all NAE connected. Brushed up against Ron Sider via his pamphlet on the graduated tithe. Thence to Assemblies of God in approach if not in name, and now cast up upon the shore of the Berean denomination, said to be fundamentalist in its literature, but local churches have great freedom in how to interpret that. Commonalities there; but my experience is much different re: goals of what is called here the religious right. The church with which I’ve communed for twenty years is very focused on the kind of missions which serves the international Body of Christ, training leaders on four continents, mobilizing believers in S.A., AF, EU and AS to go cross-cultural among unreached people groups with the good news of Christ’s redemption. Re: fighting poverty and injustice here in the U.S., I recommend a close look at such undercurrents as are represented by the Hope Awards given by .

  • Susan Houg

    The end of sentence in my comment should say “Hope Awards given by Worldmag.com

  • Steve Rogers

    The Progressives have been so demonized by the neo-fundamentalist conservative evangelicals that, like me, many find the label evangelical no longer useful as an identity. As you have astutely noted, a good bit of the “fruits” of contemporary evangelicalism are inquisitions, hostility toward gays, political meanness, celebrating the gun culture, holding women back and etc. They are being marginalized in their beloved Republican party as evidenced by a Mormon and Roman Catholic nominees for president and V.P. And, I believe are in the end stages of slipping into cultural irrelevance, though not without a fight.

  • Andrew Whitehead

    A former Baylor University grad student in the department of sociology published a paper looking at role conflict among Evangelicals who tend to side with more progressive political stances. It is an interesting look at some of the outcomes of being in the “moral minority” in the 21st century. I haven’t read Swartz’s new book, but I wonder how similar the experiences are of Evangelical progressives then compared to now. Here’s a link to the paper: http://socrel.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2010/08/26/socrel.srq066.full.pdf.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,

    Thank you for your post. I find myself in the group that is both conservative theologically and conservative/libertarian politically. Rather, I have chosen them.
    You said, “So far as I can tell, they have no plan to eradicate hunger among America’s children.” I think that the reason is two-fold. First, those like me think your plans to eradicate hunger among America’s children are too utopian. We would have goals like “help as many as possible”. Second, those like me would rather have more privacy when it comes to what others know about our charity. It is more under-the-radar, so you wouldn’t notice at first glance as we don’t wave banners and draw attention as to how charitable we are. Many, many local (conservative) churches support local food pantries. While they may not espouse the ideal of eradicating hunger, I think their efforts are not less than those who do espouse such goals.
    And speaking of charity and politics, it turns out that Mitt Romney gave more to charity in one year than Vice-President Biden gave in a decade . . . by a factor of ONE THOUSAND. It is a single example, but a telling contrast.

    And I heard about this all last month on my favorite conservative radio station. Do they do such things on Air America?


    • rogereolson

      You won’t be surprised when I say that poverty and hunger in America is too widespread and profound to be left to charity.

      • Jeff B

        Isn’t that statement just a reiteration of the disciples words to Jesus right before the feeding of the 5000? “Jesus, we don’t have enough. We can’t help them. There are too many. We don’t have the resources and the issue is too big for us. Send them to the towns and inns and governments who can actually help them.” Maybe my understanding of that event is wrong but it seems that Christ’s response to the disciples was that their argument was, to use a popular word found in this thread, bogus. Why do we get to use the same reasoning?

        • rogereolson

          So your alternative to redistributing wealth to save children from starvation is….what? Rely on a miracle to do all of it? Neither did Jesus say “I know many of you have food but are hiding it; take it out and share it with those who didn’t bring any.” Surely the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 cannot be a paradigm for social ethics!

          • Jeff B

            I totally disagree! I believe that story is exactly a paradigm for the ethics of the Church. It should be through the Church that the Church feeds the hungry and clothes the homeless. If a gov’t takes care of its people, then Amen but when the Church sends the people off to the gov’t to fulfill their needs because the problem is “too profound” for the Church to handle, then we just keep selling our birthright for a bowl of soup. We continue to instill in people (both those in need and the Church itself) the belief that Christ is not enough and that his Church cannot be the agent of change he sent it to be. Maybe it would take a miracle for the church to finally live up to its mandate (and shame on us for not doing it already) but I will bet on that miracle before I tell people that they should actually be putting their hope and trust in a governmental system.

          • rogereolson

            If we left it to churches to take care of the poor, removing the government safety net, you would see thousands of homeless children wandering the streets begging, sleeping under bridges and searching dumpsters for food (as in some countries where there is no government safety net but many churches).

        • Tim Reisdorf

          Hi Jeff,

          I agree with Roger that this story is not the right story for this issue. Rather, the woman who lavishly spent her property (in a way that could not be used on behalf of the poor) from Mt 26 is better. Jesus rebuked those who judged her – and it comes out in the text that Judas then went to start his scheme to betray Jesus. It is curious what Jesus also said, “The poor you will always have with you.” It is not a statement of callus unconcern, but a statement of priority. Care for the poor does not trump everything, nor does it justify the disciples desires to do something good with someone else’s property.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Surprised? No. Government has been waging a “war” on poverty in America for a long time. It’s not a new idea. The new idea is that government is actually contributing to the problem.

  • “Evangelical Left” / “Evangelical Right” / “Moderates” / “Progressives” / Conservatives” / “Liberals” / “Mainline” / “Fundamentalists.” I reject all such labels. I AM WHAT I AM!

    A certain politician running for election in November claimed to be a “CONSERVATIVE/LIBERAL.” Someone challenged his claim, saying, “You can’t be both!” He replied, “Oh, yes, I can!” He explained, “I’m conservative with my money and liberal with everybody else’s.”

  • Roger, I am in the midst of reading it for a review of it for CT online. It is an important book with all sorts of implications. I suspect you will really like it.

  • John Ayala

    Thank you for posting this! I recently have been introduced to, listened to sermons by and read books by Greg Boyd and Shane Claiborne. God has used these people, and those people who taught them (Yoder, Hauerwas, Campolo, etc), to turn my faith world upside down. It is not so much my theological world, since most of what they address was not really set in stone for me using theology. Most of what they speak about was only taught to me using a nationalistic/American values, not necessarily Biblical or Christ-like. I agree with so much about what they say and if makes so much sense from reason, scripture, tradition and experience (ie in my view they pass the Wesleyan Quadrilateral test) and If this makes me “more-liberal” or a “liberal” in ultra-conservative eyes, then so be it. Although, it seems to me that most of these people do not hold to theological views of liberal Christianity. They seem in line theologically with Christian orthodoxy but their social views are more liberal in the political sense, rather than in a theological sense. At least in so far as I have read their work (Greg Boyd and Shane Claiborne).
    This is where I think conservative Christians would benefit from reading a book such as your “Mosaic of Christian Belief” and the book by Greg Boyd, “The Myth of a Christian Nation.” Our assistant pastor, who I am very close with and is discipling me, let me borrow your book and it was very enjoyable, enlightening and helped me (along with encouragement from my pastor) get over the “fear” that had been instilled in me my whole life to read anything other than conservative books or theology. Not necessarily so that I can become one (liberal) theologically, but in order that my views in Christianity would become more balanced or at least I would know what I am disagreeing with specifically.
    Greg’s book is good to help us understand, as Christians how we have been, continue to be and will always be “used” by politicians to get elected or used by political parties/groups to gain power; unless we decide that we will not be used for anyone’s purposes other than Jesus’ purposes to bring the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Which includes evangelism, believing in the virgin birth, believing in the resurrection; as well as non-legislated: redistribution, social justice, etc. It also helps in the simple fact that knowing that Jesus did not get pulled into taking sides in the politics of His day and that he had disciples that were (politically) radically opposed to each other in His 12 (ie Simon the Zealot and Matthew the Tax Collector). I grant that we should vote what our conscience tells us, which should always continue to be renewed in Christ, but we should never think that our (ourselves, our church, our political party) vote is the only “Christian vote.”
    Based on what I have recently learned through these men (you included), I preached a sermon this past Sunday (my Church leadership allows me to preach once a month) in which I taught on Matt 6:22-24 (which is a continuation of a Sermon on the Mount series I have been doing following Dallas Willard’s, Divine Conspiracy as inspiration), in which I was able to incorporate much of what I have learned about what the scriptures have to say about the importance of taking care of the poor (redistribution) and the time of Jubilee that is God’s Kingdom, of which Jesus came to inaugurate Luke 4:16-19.
    Since I basically write out my whole sermons in my outline (bad habit), I wonder if you could take a look and let me know if you would have any constructive criticism (besides the bad spelling/grammar)? I can send you a link where you can read the outline. If not, I understand that you are so busy and thank you for just writing this post, your books, your teaching and everything else you will continue to do for the Christian community!

    • rogereolson

      I’m very glad that what I have written has been of service to you, but I have so many people wanting me to read something and comment on it or help them with it that I’m overwhelmed. I regretfully have to decline, but you have my best wishes and prayers as you work on these things.

      • John Ayala

        Of course, I understand. Thank you so much as I said for everything that you do, such as this blog, the books you are writing at the moment and in the future. You are a blessing ecumenically and theologically. I hope to become as Christ-like in the way that you are, by understanding and appreciating the many glorious facets of this faith in Christ we call Christianity.
        Thank you and God bless!

  • Josh

    It seems you and Peter Enns are addressing similar things at the same time; the following recent post by Peter Enns fits in with both topics of Evangelical Inquisitions and the Evangelical Left:

  • Bev Mitchell


    Thanks for the memories. The early Sojourners was, for me, strong evidence that Bible believing Christians were passionately about the Father’s business on the social front well outside the conservative circles of my upbringing (Holiness Movement – non-charismatic version – no tongues please, we’re Wesleyan). At roughly the same time, New Covenant magazine (Catholic Charismatic) was strong evidence that the Holy Spirit was active outside of Wesleyan and protestant pentecostal congregations. Francis Schaeffer was OK until “A Christian Manifesto”. From the get-go, something seemed wrong with that line of thinking that took maybe ten or fifteen years to fully reveal itself.

    We lefties are still praying for more effective ways to speak truth to power. We rejoice at Jim Wallace’s progress and tenacity. It’s always a thrill to see posters on Catholic church bulletin boards in Mexico advertising some charismatic event or other. At the baptism of our godson in western Mexico nine years ago, it was a blessing to hear the priest, upon learning something of my background, express a desire to share, in his words “what the Spirit has been doing” in his parish.

    There is so much more that Bible honouring Christians have to contribute. The so-called Christian right has limited the discussion to a few issues and been more or less completely co-opted by cynics and charlatans. People who fell for Schaeffer and Falwell are beginning to recover from the spell. Have a look at Pete Enns’ post today on “Evangelical Political Bullying” wherein he highlights the story of Richard Cizik, author of “My Journey Toward the ‘New Evangelicalism.” I’ve yet to read his book, so don’t know if it fits any kind of liberal label, but it must be a step in the right direction.

    Both books (Swartz and Cizik) will have to be added to the list. Thanks for the tip and for continually stirring the pot.

    • rogereolson

      I stopped reading Schaeffer when he wrote A Christian Manifesto and other, similar books. But his early books (e.g., The God Who Is There) helped me struggle out of my Pentecostal anti-intellectualism. (Actually, I’m not sure I was ever anti-intellectual, but the Pentecostals I grew up around and was educated by were.) Later, I came to see that Schaeffer had been wrong about Kierkegaard (for example), but he provided me with a good beginning in my journey toward Christian scholarship.

  • Bev Mitchell


    The “book” by Cizik is a chapter in “A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good ” The word ‘manifesto’ brings up dark thoughts, but it should still be worth a look.

  • Bev Mitchell

    One more time.

    Sorry for the disjointed post. Just had a look at http://www.newevangelicalpartnership.org/

    Looks like Cizik and friends have launched a site which could be defined as somewhat liberal evangelical. Certainly, there are those who will try hard to use the “l” word to speak against it. In the light of your post, this may well be worth a look. Maybe this is old news for many, and just new to me.

    • rogereolson

      I hope everyone who comes here knows that I do not consider myself theologically liberal.

  • Theophile

    Hi Roger,
    Really Jesus Himself described 7 church “types” all His, some doing good, others not so…
    Revelation 2 – 3 describe these types…. Here’s my thoughts on those today:
    #1 Ephesus, Left it’s 1st love… I believe this is “The OT is the old covenant, it’s All done away with” doctrine. What was the greatest command? … A quote from Moses Hear O Israel our God is one LORD, and ye shall love the LORD your God with all…. Who rarely if ever quote Moses, but is all about spreading the gospel?… Evangelical
    #2 Smyrna, The only church doing it right, and being killed, like Jesus was, for it… Look to Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan. etc. for Smyrnian’s it cost’s them something to be born again…..
    #3 Pergamos, State/Church…. Roman Catholic/Church of England…
    #4 Thyatira, based on those 111 word’s of rebuke, and how they match those 111 votes for fornication back in July at her 77th…. Episcopal.
    #5 Sardis, the “Clueless Church” …. progressive Christianity
    #6 Philadelphia, those watching true believing mentors of ours(seniors), being taken out peacefully while we speak, before the hour…
    #7 Laodicea: Basic “American” Christianity, most apparent when “right” or “left” wing as in politics is applied, as they don’t yet realize those wings are both attached to the fallen angel that runs this place…. Duh!
    Hey! American Christians quote John 3:16 all the time, but never realize John also penned Revelation! Which contains the “revealed” John 3:16!

  • Mike

    Comments here responding to your post, including reference to the allegedly “bogus issue of abortion” (whatever that might mean) and “holding women back” (by desiring to protect the unborn, I take it, or perhaps to put an end to the infanticidal practices supported by our current President, and actively so as an Illinois state senator), seem to have taken their cue from your castigation of Christians who are politically conservative. It is both ironic and unfortunate to see such intolerance and demeaning of political “adversaries” from those who purport to be seeking peace and unity. I will move on from this blog, but I will continue to enjoy your former work (especially “The Story of Christian Theology”).

    • rogereolson

      Feel free to move on, but know that I did not call abortion a “bogus issue.” That was in a comment someone else posted here.

  • Bev Mitchell

    An outstanding audio piece is up today on Greg Boyd’s site at http://reknew.org/
    It is a replay of a discussion between Boyd and Jim Wallis from four years ago. Completely complimentary to this post. Moving, informative and inspiring. Ninety minutes very well spent.

  • I think Evangelicalism is trying to re-center itself somewhere, somehow. The ne0-evangelicals consensus of Ockenga, etc., has broken down. Like you, I cling to the word Evangelical, but it sure is taking a lot of work to do so. My guess is that guys like NT Wright are having their effect with their paradigm of Gospel as Kingdom Come, and not what Scot McKnight calls the Soterian Gospel, the “how to get saved” model. I buy into what Wright and McKnight are selling. The Gospel as “God’s return” in completion of the Israel story is broader, more inclusive of all that Christianity is, and focused on this world, and not another, as being redeemed, seems to me to be seeping into the Evangelical bloodstream. In this model the Evangelical Left have more of a home (I do not consider myself to be among their number) and there tends to be less bifurcation than was true of the older Evangelicalism. This is a good thing. It is not a contrast between Kingdom or Cross but Kingdom and Cross. My guess is that this is where Evangelicalism is trying to go without completely turning down the “how to get saved” speaker. I would like to see you review McKnight’s “The King Jesus Gospel,” and Wright’s “How God Became King.”

    • Bev Mitchell

      Well said Don. And I second your suggestion. As if Roger were not already doing enough.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    As a student of history, the evangelical left will one day be viewed by a majority of more “centrist” or “balanced” Evangelicals as the Evangelical right. How fundamentalists are viewed or how religous conservatives are treated today will probably one day come back around to today’s evangelical left. For those escaping civil religion, more power to you. To those captured by the politics and cultural dictates of the moment, may your tribe decrease. For those who go beyond right and lef or simply reject the politics of this world (whether right or left) for the politics of Jesus, may your tribe increase!

  • HenryC

    The progressive movement lacks children. This includes much of the Evangelical left. It has to recruit instead of grow its movement. Most of the Evangelical left are old men and women.

  • thekid

    “I don’t hear that goal talked about among the religious right. So far as I can tell, they have no plan to eradicate hunger among America’s children. So far as I can tell, they are only interested in fighting “gay rights” and abortion and redistribution of wealth.”

    Conservatives don’t believe in “eradicating” poverty because free will and freedom demand that we allow people to make choices that make them poor. Conservatives believe in helping the poor lift themselves up into the middle class, but we oppose poisoning them with a victim mentality and crippling them into reliance on the state, instead of on God, their family, their church and themselves. We support a safety net for the poor and actually helping them by working with them one on one in a meaningful, transformative way. That’s whey studies show that conservatives give far more more money and time to the poor than liberals — we just don’t toot our horns about it. Most importantly, we don’t believe in basing our prosperity on the killing of innocent unborn babies and the future labor of our born children, who will have to slave away to pay off our immoral debt.

    • rogereolson

      Of course we can’t force people not to be poor, but we can and should provide opportunities for people who are poor not by choice but by unfortunate circumstances to rise out of poverty. That’s what I mean by eradicating poverty (obviously).

  • K Gray

    Has no one said this yet? Most conservative Christians I know who work in anti-poverty ministries – and that’s what I do, along with many many others – do not work through or with the government because it so constricts our ability to simultaneously tell the good news!

    In my experience over many years dealing in poverty, handouts help somewhat but may “enslave.” We all know not to give money to those who are tempted by it, but perhaps to pay their rent instead. We all know whole groups of young people who sell their food stamps at half price in order to buy worse things. We know not to give a computer to a child whose parents will sell it for drugs. We know when handouts actually put people at risk. We know when 99 weeks of unemployment will keep some people (who should be supporting a family) unemployed for 97 weeks. We know young moms who have no idea how to prepare breakfast or pack a school lunch, or buy groceries for those tasks, because government daycare has done it for them all their childrens’ lives. We know that earning $6500 a year can provide $4000 on the tax refund, which is then used to buy a (bad) car with a high note, which will lead quickly to repossession — there went that redistributed money! Next year it will go for a vacation, and the next year for (I’m not kidding here) exotic pets. We know generations of families who have no idea that income is a result of diligent effort, not unhealthy dependent relationships or filling out forms or selling favors. And we know the impersonal governmental assistance CAN be (can be, not always) worse for people than no help, and certain IS worse than the transformational formula of relationship, loving assistance with accountability, and the good news.

    This is not a blanket condemnation of government assistance; by no means. But unfortunately I have seen all of the above, which are becoming more and more common. Only the gospel transforms lives. Governmental assistance never comes with Good News.

  • Peterson

    I’m a young black man who holds to more reformed tradition and who has John Piper and the like as role models as I appreciate their perspective on the scriptures. However, I often find myself absolutely alone in my repudiation of the dominant perspective of the Christian Right. I remember another time when Christians were absolutely against social justice and equal rights for other Americans. Yes I am student of the Civil Rights Movement and it pains me to think that Christendom in AMerica was in opposition to my very ability to vote freely.

    That time reminds a great deal of today. There is an arrogance amongst many in the Christian Right where they are absolutely deaf to other concerns that may arise in politics. “Government shouldn’t help people, they should help themselves.” Well taking that same line of thinking, blacks would still be in chains, still picking cotton, while still largely dehumanized by the dominant culture. Thank God for the work of government in America! And shame on those believers who held to a faith which cherishes life, yet who stood by while racism and hatred was institutionalized against a great many people.

    I’m not so sure the Church in America has removed the scales from her eyes regarding a whole host of issues. But I can put faith and trust in God that he will use any and all means to correct and rebuke her; even if that rebuke comes from the world itself as it often did during the CVM.

  • Jose Goldstein

    Be careful in fighting “hunger.” People at the lower end of the spectrum financially are the MOST likely to be overweight. Why not teach them spiritual truths instead, and plant seeds that will grow towards eternal life?

    • rogereolson

      Why not do both (viz., provide them [especially the children] with healthy food and information about how to eat for well-being) AND teach them spiritual truths? The government can do the former (in schools, for instance) and the church do the latter (in back yard clubs, for example).

  • What most troubles me is the absence of the evangelical/pentecostal center. I would define that group as those who find both the left (abortion anywhere, anytime, anyone) and the right (abortion never, nowhere, no one) as equally morally reprehensible and simplistic — to cite just one hot-button issue. Even knowing he would lose, I voted for John Anderson on the basis of a statement he made on NPR. He said (and I paraphrase), “American evangelicals do not understand what it means to live in a ‘pluralistic’ society. It means: I need to remember that if I can gain power today and legislate that no woman can obtain an abortion, tomorrow you can win political power and legislate that a woman MUST have an abortion.” Anderson was right, and we’ve seen this zero-sum game played out between Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid on one moral continent, and the Tea Party on the other. Where are the evangelicals/pentecostals who will “stand in the gap” — the biblical center — and say, “You’re both wrong!”?

    • Doug, I’m not sure that a biblical position will find itself ever at the “center” of any civil society, in any sense of the word. (1) I’m not sure I’d want it to become “central,” if by that you hint at us finding an middle-ground–as though there’s any particular moral value to moderation for moderation’s sake. Some moral matters really do call for livid outrage. (2) I suppose you mean “center” as in “caught in the middle,” like St. Steven while the opponents notched up their arrows? Maybe that’s our role, part of taking up the cross daily? (3) Lord willing, a biblical position could one day become “central” enough to play a pivotal role in raising the moral quality of our politics the social contract that it maintains. And in any case, your comment about Anderson’s reasoning should remind us that none of us ought to be searching for a Theocratic civil government any time short of the return of Jesus Christ, who’s wise rule will establish the only legitimate theocracy in our future.

  • RF

    Great post. The Church, by and large, is failing the poor. Our own church saw a $100k+ redecorating campaign completed and paid for this year in record time. Lovely. Our city missions budget sits at roughly $5,000 annually. Is this modern “Evangelicalism”? I hope not, but I believe so. Tho the leadership is largely (thankfully!) silent on political matters, I’m frankly tired of hearing sermons on why I should take the Bible literally. Blessed are the poor.

  • Nancy


    • rogereolson

      They’re not very organized.

  • Sharon

    (Saw this interesting historical matter while on the net. Any reactions?)

    The Rapture Belief is Anti-Catholic

    Many assert that the “rapture” promoted by evangelicals was first taught, at least seminally, by a Jesuit Catholic priest named Francisco Ribera in his 16th century commentary on the book of Revelation.
    To see what is claimed, Google “Francisco Ribera taught a rapture 45 days before the end of Antichrist’s future reign.” (Oddly, many claimants are anti-Catholic and merely use Ribera in order to “find” much earlier historical support for their rapture which actually isn’t found in any official Christian theology or organized church before 1830!)
    After seeing this claim repeated endlessly without even one sentence from Ribera offered as proof, one widely known church historian decided to go over every page in Ribera’s 640-page work published in Latin in 1593.
    After laboriously searching for the Latin equivalent of “45 days” (“quadraginta quinque dies”), “rapture” (“raptu,” “raptio,” “rapiemur,” etc.) and other related expressions, the same scholar revealed that he couldn’t find anything in Ribera’s work even remotely resembling a prior rapture! (Since the same scholar plans to publish his complete findings, I won’t disclose his name.)
    Are you curious about the real beginnings of this evangelical belief (a.k.a. the “pre-tribulation rapture”) merchandised by Darby, Scofield, Lindsey, Falwell, LaHaye, Ice, Van Impe, Hagee and many others?
    Google “The Unoriginal John Darby,” “Pretrib Rapture Diehards,” “X-Raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving is Unnerving,” “Walvoord Melts Ice,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “Wily Jeffrey,” “Deceiving and Being Deceived” by D.M., “The Real Manuel Lacunza,” “Roots of Warlike Christian Zionism,” “Pretrib Rapture Politics,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy” (anti-Catholic evangelical leaders), “Famous Rapture Watchers,” and “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty” – most of these by the author of the 300-page nonfiction book “The Rapture Plot,” the highly endorsed and most accurate documentation on the long hidden historical facts of the 182-year-old pre-tribulation rapture theory imported from Britain during the late 19th century.