THE BLOG
01/24/2013 03:53 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Evangelical Christians: The First American Liberals

Evangelical Christians have gotten a bum rap. And this is a Jew speaking.

Many Americans operate under the grade school notion that it was the Puritans who introduced religious freedom to the New World. They didn't. In escaping their own religious persecution in England, they came to America to set up a theocracy in which tolerance of other religions was considered heresy. Among those exiled from the Plymouth colony was Roger Williams, an English Protestant theologian, who later established the Baptist Church in America. Williams was one of the earliest proponents of religious freedom in the colonies. He established Providence, R.I., as a refuge for religious minorities and espoused the radical notions of separating church and state, freedom of conscience and the abolition of slavery.

Sounds suspiciously like liberalism to me.

If you go to the Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of liberalism (a term first used in 1819), here's what you find:
  1. a movement in modern Protestantism emphasizing intellectual liberty and the spiritual and ethical content of Christianity
  2. a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition, the self-regulating market, and the gold standard
  3. a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically: such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class).

Applying each of those definitions illustrates my point: liberalism and evangelical Christianity are intimately linked.

Starting with No. 1, Roger Williams was ousted from the Plymouth colony as a heretic, but he took with him the powerful intellectual tradition of the Puritans. At that point in American history, schools were employed in the service of the Protestant ruling group. As I've written elsewhere, "Despite its seeming narrowness, education was the Puritans' great gift to our nation. Puritans, like Jews, cherished learnedness and detested ignorance. They demanded literacy and scholarship in their clergy. Puritan logic was almost Talmudic in its minute weighing of alternatives." It was this intellectual tradition that Roger Williams applied to his constructs of religious liberty.

How did we get from there to the perceived anti-intellectualism that is often associated with the religious right today? What about intellectual liberty viewed through "the spiritual and ethical content of Christianity"? A core belief of many evangelical Christians is that redemption is freely available through Christ and that it is their duty to spread the good news of that forgiveness through vigorous proselytizing. But many also view it as their duty to share the Gospel by serving as exemplars and by modeling Jesus's life through humility, care for the needy and the pursuit of justice. I've heard this echoed by the Chairman of the Tanenbaum Center of Interreligious Understanding, an evangelical Christian. In his practice, proselytizing is not as much about preaching to others but about being an example through living God's love. Interestingly, our Chair, a staunch Republican, considers himself a liberal.

Moving on to definition No. 2, American evangelicalism arose in the midst of rapid industrialization that created seismic shifts in the social compact. In light of dramatic inequalities in the distribution of wealth, the relationship of capital to labor became a flashpoint. Concerns about the impact of industrialization on the poor, the aged and the otherwise disenfranchised gave rise to the articulation and pursuit of the Social Gospel. One of the early Christian theologians of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, was also a strong advocate of the labor movement. Yes. The labor movement!

This smacks of the "L" word -- two "L" words, in fact!

Finally, No. 3: The Social Gospel, embraced by the liberal wing of evangelical Christians, emerged in the early 20th century. Its goal was to bring the Gospel to the whole person, and not just to the spiritual experience of being "born again" in Christ. Confronted with an excess of poverty, alcoholism, illness, inequality, racial tensions, problems faced by immigrants, crime, the evangelical Christian conscience responded with social activism. Many from that community were immersed in the abolition movement, public health measures, the settlement house movement, the establishment of adoption agencies, the temperance movement, improvement of schools, enforced education for the poor, women's suffrage, among others -- and ultimately, the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these movements in the pursuit of social justice required the intervention of government, and this was, in fact, partly driven by the contribution of evangelical Christianity to progressive social causes.

In one of his essays, Paul Toms, a former President of the National Association of Evangelicals, explains the overlap of government, the evangelical Christian community's social activism and societal ills: "We are concerned with the place of Christians in government, the feeding of the hungry and starving, and the meeting of physical needs. We give attention to the hurts and problems people have, especially those problems that are inadequately handled by government." He goes on to quote from a pamphlet, Evangelicalism and Social Responsibility, authored by Dr. Vernon Grounds: "Three passions ... have governed my life: The longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind." Toms also quotes Frances Schaeffer, "Christians are not to love their believing brothers to the exclusion of their non-believing fellow men."

How did evangelical Christians, who have been dedicated to the care of all people and at the forefront of social reform in America, come to be broadly identified with intolerance and a lack of compassion?

According to the 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, evangelical Christians make up more that 26 percent of the U.S. population -- the single largest religious denomination in our highly pluralistic country. Yet, in a recent New York Times opinion piece, "The Decline of Evangelical America," John Dickerson, senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Arizona and an evangelical Christian himself, notes that the evangelical church has lost both numbers and power.

The Pew survey results are revealing:

  • Among evangelical Christians, 50 percent percent either identify as Republican or lean toward the Republican Party.
  • In political ideology, 52 percent are Conservative.
  • On the size of government, evangelicals today top the list with 48 percent of the former advocating smaller government and fewer services.
  • 50 percent of evangelicals believe that government should be more involved in protecting morality.
  • When it comes to abortion or homosexuality, evangelicals top the list of those religious groups that are opposed.
  • When it comes to stricter environmental laws, at 54 percent, evangelicals are close to the bottom of the list of groups in support.
  • However, on the issue of whether the U.S. should be active in world affairs or focus on domestic issues, evangelicals match the national total of 36 percent supporting an inward focus. Interestingly, this means that the majority of evangelical Christians is more outward looking and engaged in global issues than historically Black Churches, Muslims, Hindus and Jehovah's Witnesses. This is the only category where the majority of evangelicals are in the "liberal" camp.

So what does all this mean? If one compares where evangelical Christians stand on these measures to the rest of the U.S. population, they stand in contrast to the national mood. (The sole exception is engagement in world affairs.) Dickerson has an explanation: "Evangelicals have not adapted well to rapid shifts in the culture -- including, notably, the move toward support for same-sex marriage. The result is that evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots. ... Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury."

Yet, for each measure in the Pew survey, there are substantial percentages of evangelicals who remain identified with "liberal" positions. Indeed, 41 percent define themselves ideologically as liberal or moderate. This, in itself, makes clear that evangelicals are not a monolithic community.

The ongoing tensions within evangelical Christianity are eloquently explained by Ron Sanders in writing about the Campus Crusade for Christ in "The Gospel in Action":

Since the turn of the 20th Century and the fundamentalist controversy, social justice concerns have often been linked with theological liberalism. While churches on the left focused on managing the sin(s) of society, the more conservative churches focused their theology and practice on the evangelization of individuals. With the exception of a few, the conservative churches withdrew from social justice practices to (1) focus on the evangelization of individuals and (2) not be associated with the theologically liberal churches.

Recently, conservative protestants have been moving toward including social justice concerns in the theology and practice of their spiritual journey. Instead of being a marker for theological liberalism, social justice has become a benchmark for a richer and more full gospel. They contend that the numerous old testament and new testament passages that talk about caring for the poor, the stranger, the marginalized and the disadvantaged must be taken as a serious element of the Kingdom of God.

In essence, Sanders suggests that within conservative Protestant Christianity, there are distinct movements involving both the saving of individual souls and those who engage in the public square. This tension has an additional dimension that has emerged among some within the evangelical Christian community: whether to engage in the public square by focusing not on serving the disadvantaged but on utilizing political power for moral ends.

For Dickerson, the power of evangelical Christianity is not in its political action but in its core beliefs of social justice. "How can evangelicalism right itself? We can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs -- with grace and humility instead of superior hostility."

It is that grace and the deep caring for humanity that characterizes the evangelical Christians who are my personal exemplars. It is that compassion that made evangelical Christians the first liberals.

And that's why this Jew feels that evangelical Christians have gotten a bum rap.