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Craig S. Keener

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The Evangelical Left in History and Today

Posted: 04/19/2012 3:16 pm

Public reports usually focus on the majority of evangelicals recently affiliated with the religious right. We generally hear little, however, about the third of evangelicals who lean in the other direction (except for a few well-known figures such as Tony Campolo or Jim Wallis). Likewise, many do not realize that evangelicals have never been a permanent constituency of the right: through most of their history, most evangelicals have been politically varied and unpredictable. President Obama and other Democrats who have tried to reach out to evangelicals, therefore, act strategically, even though it will undoubtedly take time for major shifts of political affiliation to occur.

The association of evangelicals with the political right is recent, not characteristic of the evangelical heritage. Indeed, even the emphasis on separation of church and state in the West arose especially among Anabaptists who faced persecution for dissenting from the state churches. From the late 18th century on, social justice was a defining characteristic of evangelical faith, and the abolition of the slave trade, and ultimately slavery itself, became the leading evangelical social agenda. William Wilberforce and his allies achieved this outcome fairly peacefully in the British Empire. Many evangelicals worked for abolitionism in the United States as well, though the issue ultimately divided this country and its churches, often along geographic lines, and culminated in a civil war. After the war, those evangelicals who had supported abolition remained in the forefront of working for justice among the poor.

What happened to evangelical social concern? In the early 20th century the modernist-fundamentalist controversy polarized many churches. "Modernists" argued for accommodating modern knowledge and "fundamentalists" (not initially a pejorative term) argued for maintaining what they saw as the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Although the spectrum of Christian opinion was actually much more diverse (for example, most African-American churches never felt part of either camp), extreme voices often polarized their constituencies. As characterized by their opponents, these voices either abandoned historic Christian doctrines or rejected modern knowledge. (Such dismissive stereotypes persist today, most frequently as unfair caricatures.)

Even during this period, however, many theologically conservative churches were heavily engaged in social action. For example, Aimee Semple McPherson, a controversial Pentecostal megachurch pastor who grew up in the Salvation Army, was heavily involved in feeding the hungry during the Great Depression. The new evangelical movement of the 1940s and 1950s, associated with Billy Graham and others, tried to restore the best aspects of 19th century evangelicals' pre-fundamentalist social engagement.

Evangelicals still had a long way to go on various issues, but younger voices argued for change. Some of the most influential evangelical voices for change eventually came from outside the white U.S. evangelical subculture: for example, Peruvian evangelical scholar Samuel Escobar, who engaged liberation theology; African-American evangelicals such as Tom Skinner; Canadian evangelical Ron Sider, author of the best-selling Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger; and British evangelical John Stott. Roughly 90 percent of black evangelicals are Democrats. Today the some 600 million evangelicals outside the Western world outnumber Western evangelicals by at least four or five times their number. Globally, evangelicalism is a matter of a faith commitment rather than politics, and many of these evangelicals are embarrassed by the religious right in the United States.

The evangelical left flourished in U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, and some observers in the early 1970s expected it to exercise the major influence in evangelical politics. Reagan's media-savvy associates reached out to largely apolitical evangelicals, however. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority quickly upstaged the evangelical left; evangelical academicians could not compete with the reach of Falwell's religious media. Once the Moral Majority loudly claimed to speak for evangelicalism and was often represented even in the secular media as such, many popular evangelicals identified themselves with the movement. U.S. evangelicalism has always been a populist movement, and evangelicals, who in recent decades had often felt culturally marginalized, were newly mobilized as a political interest group. Nevertheless, even during Reagan's tenure, roughly a third of evangelicals voted Democratic.

In a 2000 Princeton University survey, nearly two-thirds of U.S. evangelicals considered themselves liberal or (especially) moderate rather than conservative. In another survey in 2009, 35 percent of evangelicals were Democrats, 34 percent Republicans, and the rest independents. Many views of evangelicals defy stereotypes; for example, in 2008, 60 percent of evangelicals felt that the government should help the poor more.

Most relevant has been the recent, dramatic shift away from the religious right among younger evangelicals, partly in reaction against what they see as some extreme policies. A Pew Research poll indicates that since 2005, 15 percent fewer young white evangelicals self-identify as Republican. One should not overestimate the immediate results of such a shift, since two-thirds of those shifting became independent. Past stereotypes die hard, and some of these evangelicals may remain suspicious of and feel unwelcome in the Democratic party. Nevertheless, shift is occurring.

Blanket statements about all evangelicals mix the Democratic Tony Campolos with the far right Jerry Falwells. Given evangelicalism's diverse history and its undefined future, it is both inaccurate and unhelpful to stereotype all "evangelicals" as the religious right. It was especially this public linking of evangelicals with the political right, by Jerry Falwell and other public figures, that initially consolidated the religious right. Today, stereotyping evangelicalism as a whole only fortifies the influence of the political right on a movement that has a much more varied history. Democrats should therefore applaud President Obama and others working to transcend these traditional political barriers.

 
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