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.