Monday, March 16, 2009

Political changes in evangelicalism

Michael Spencer has an interesting article at Internet Monk on recent reports of the trend of younger evangelicals to self-identify as politically liberal. He makes several interesting points, one of which is that there have been progressive Christians around all the time, if people were willing to look for us.

He is correct — both voices have been there all along, for those who knew where to look. But following the victories of the Religious Left in the 1960s, the Religious Right rose to ascendancy in the 1970s by politics about “values” (usually morality) rather than about social justice. In my own experience at least, a concern with social ills often was dismissed in evangelical circles as following a “social gospel,” which somehow was less sacred or True than the spiritual gospel being pushed instead. The Religious Left didn’t disappear during all this, but it did fade, and as is often the case, the crowd of moderates gradually shifted toward the voices on the Right that were dominating.

It’s not entirely fair to say that “the media” anointed the leaders and speakers for evangelicals. Most were chosen by evangelicals who listened to their programs, distributed their material, and made the phone calls that they were asked to. It’s not reasonable to fault the media for noting who the political power-brokers were in Christian circles; the fault lies with us for ever elevating them to that level.

I am curious to see how the leftward shift plays itself out in terms of evangelicalism. It’s been made clear to me by a good number of evangelicals that the tent isn’t big enough for me because of my political viewpoints — even though my religious views fall squarely within orthodoxy. That sort of political bellicosity, combined with an eagerness to define evangelicalism along narrower and narrower doctrinal lines, led me several years ago to ditch the evangelical label. I’m happy now to be known as “post-evangelical” or, more simply, “not evangelical.”

From what I’ve read, my experience is hardly unique. Some people, like Gary Olson, are trying to reclaim the evangelical label for the inclusivity it once represented, but from what I can tell, that hasn’t been happening. If the strident voices on the Right politically continue to push away those who don’t toe the party line, how long will this new generation of politically liberal Christians be willing to identify themselves with a movement that’s become known for not wanting them?

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