Curmudgeonly Evangelicals?

Old Life is not the only place where the dissatisfied express their dissatisfaction. Evangelical scholars are weighing in on Francis Fitzgerald’s new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. If Barry Hankins thinks Fitzgerald neglects evangelicalism’s religious character, Randy Balmer faults her for not noticing evangelicals’ progressive politics:

FitzGerald recounts the drafting of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Con­cern in November 1973, but then progressive evangelicals drop almost entirely from the narrative until the waning years of the George W. Bush administration. Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher, the nation’s first avowed born-again president and a progressive evangelical, receives only scattered mention—far less, for example, than Phyllis Schlafly or even Herb Titus, a truly fringe figure. The chapter on George W. Bush, the nation’s second born-again president, by contrast, consumes more than a hundred pages.

FitzGerald renders the inner workings of the religious right in granular detail. We hear, for example, about James Dob­son’s tantrums and Richard Land’s partisan harangues, but only brief and belated reference to Sojourners magazine’s Call to Renewal or the effort of Red Letter Christians to emphasize the social teachings of Jesus. The author commendably plunges into the works of Rousas John Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer, but the writings of Jim Wallis receive no comparable midrash. Shane Claiborne, a “rock star” among younger evangelicals and a radical (not progressive) evangelical, merits only a single reference.

The problem that Balmer fails to notice is that Christian progressives (evangelical or not) are in decline:

If the religious right has a single lesson to offer the left, it’s that churches make excellent incubators for political movements. With the decline of unions, progressive organizing has been left with a vacuum to fill. Left-leaning congregations could provide much-needed organizational apparatus that would be particularly important in local and off-year elections — the type of contests Democrats have struggled with in recent years.

Yet the the religious left has never faced more serious challenges. Religious progressives are fighting for relevance at a time when secular voters are becoming an increasingly crucial part of the Democratic coalition, and their political clout is only going to grow. Recent work suggests that secular voters are often uncomfortable with religiously infused political appeals, which could hurt the prospects of creating a secular-religious coalition. Progressives have always celebrated the big-tent nature of their movement, but religious liberals who once operated in the center ring may now have to come to terms with working outside the spotlight.

Since we live in a democracy, numbers matter? If we want an aristocracy of the few, the virtuous, the woke, fine. But that means giving up all that idealism about the equality of all people.

Don’t forget to notice also that the problem for Balmer with evangelicals is not Hankin’s complaint — that they are too political. Instead, the evangelical error is having the wrong politics. That would be an amusing exegetical show to find the Democratic (or Republican) platform in the pages of Holy Writ.

7 thoughts on “Curmudgeonly Evangelicals?

  1. The problem is that Jim Wallis has never been much of an evangelical versus a fundraiser (and who would by *his* collected works, for crying out loud…Mel White?), that Francis Schaeffer had tantrums ever much as did James Dobson, and the Shane Clairborne is essentially a nobody (who will have his books on their shelves in 5 years?). As for Jimmy Carter, his sister Ruth was more of an evangelical for 5 minutes, and his new study Bible is essentially the Mainliner’s Handbook on How to Diss Baptists). Although I will say anyone who mentions Herb Titus (“Reunite us with Titus” was the banner that the plane [sponsored by wacko law school zealots] carried when it buzzed Regent U’s graduation back in the day) has done an impressive amount of research. But context, context… Outsiders will forever be at a loss to capture the sense of proportion necessary to properly analyze a movement as fluid as Evangelicalism. And Balmer, for all his acclaim, doesn’t get the tradition’s heart himself. The real credibility test is, does the book mention John MacArthur, Wayside Chapel, The 4 Spiritual Laws, Dottie Rambo, AW Pink, John Piper, Chosen Books, Larry Tomscak, or Jack Chick? The omission of even one would be fatally revealing.


  2. two points here. First, I agree that we won’t find either the Republican or Democratic platforms in holy writ. But that doesn’t meant that parts of each platform won’t have some grounds based in the Scriptures. The same goes with the platforms of other political parties. All of this means that we need to talk with and listen to each other to find those parts in each others’ parties political platforms.

    Second, from the beginning, we’ve had an aristocracy here. During the times of the founding fathers, the aristocracy consisted of the landed interests. Now it consists of the moneyed interests. And though these groups don’t necessarily form aristocracies as was done during the times of the founding fathers. However, on a practical level, America has always been ruled by aristocracy American style.


  3. D.G.,
    You can mock if you want, but then you have to ask yourself whether that mocking is from the fruit of the Spirit, not the works of the flesh. The difference between American aristocracy and continental aristocracy is the qualifications used to determine who belonged. With the former, it still is wealth. With the later, it was one’s lineage. Just remember that The Constitution was written as a response to Shays Rebellion and widespread dissent over the economic times of that day. And that the construction of the Senate was deliberately done to make its members immune to popular opinion and The Constitution strengthened the federal government so it could better respond to future insurrections.


  4. Curt, “With the former, it still is wealth. With the later, it was one’s lineage.”

    Oh that’s right. America bans passing on wealth to children. What was I thinking?


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