Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice
Reviewed by Daniel R. Miller, History, Calvin College
This is a book about voices crying in the wilderness. It describes “progressive evangelicals,” more specifically a small but vocal group of writers and academics and popularizers such as Jim Wallis, James Skillen, Tony Campolo, John Anderson, and others who promoted their ideas in publications such as Sojourners and The Other Side, and in organizations such as Evangelicals for Social Action. Gasaway argues that they represented “a significant alternative to both the Religious Right and the secular political left from the 1970s into the twenty-first century” (3). As his book makes clear, their ideas were generally ahead of their time and on certain issues far more faithful to historic Christianity than those of the white evangelical “mainstream.” Readers are left wondering why they were ignored and marginalized for so long.
Gasaway notes that until the start of the twentieth century, American evangelicals had a well-earned reputation not just for progressive ideas, but for progressive achievements as well: temperance, prison reform, abolition, poverty alleviation, expanded educational opportunity. Then came the “great reversal” when theologically conservative Protestants separated themselves from liberal Protestants and, in the process, from the “social gospel” with which it had become identified. By midcentury, fundamentalist Protestants and their evangelical offspring had largely abandoned politics as a “worldly” concern. In the 1960s a small group of idealistic white evangelicals started a rapprochement between evangelical Christianity and political engagement. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, provoked by the War in Vietnam, challenged by inner-city poverty, they called for a new evangelical reform movement. To their chagrin, when the larger white evangelical community followed their example of political involvement, it did so in pursuit of a narrower and more conservative set of issues such as opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, and gay rights, and support for lower taxes and a militaristic foreign policy.
Gasaway describes how, beginning with the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern in 1973, progressive evangelicals developed “a public theology of community” which put them at odds with both the conservative evangelical mainstream and the secular Political Left. At its heart was a vision of the “common good” which balanced personal freedoms and social obligations. Unlike most white evangelicals, they defined sin as institutional injustice as well as personal failure and they insisted that private charity was not an adequate substitute for government efforts to alleviate disabling economic inequalities. And unlike secular leftists, they denied that individuals should be free to pursue happiness without concern for the societal consequences of their actions and they argued that religious perspectives have a place in public debate.
Over the next four decades progressive evangelicals attempted to apply their vision to a wide range of issues. They addressed racism not only as a matter of personal prejudice but as a product of unjust social, economic, and political structures, and they supported government efforts to redress these longstanding inequities through affirmative action. They promoted gender equality in the church as well as in society at large, in the process embracing a biblical hermeneutic that “de-absolutized” time-bound expectations of female subordination much as other Christians had already done with the Bible’s acceptance of monarchy and slavery. Most progressive evangelicals parted company with feminists over the issue of abortion, insisting that a woman’s right to control her own body did not trump the right of her unborn child to live. However they agonized over the way the abortion issue was used by the Christian Right to secure votes for conservative politicians whose aims on many other issues were at odds with those of the progressive evangelicals. They also struggled over gay rights, opposing legal discrimination from the start and refusing to view AIDS as a supernatural judgment on homosexuals but drawing the line at the recognition of gay marriage. They were less equivocal when it came to opposing the U.S. government’s aggressive military actions in Central America and the Middle East. And they were persistent advocates of government anti-poverty efforts, though the fall of the Soviet Union did prompt them to moderate their criticisms of capitalism.
This book is well worth reading but it does have a few limitations. It does not describe what progressive evangelicals had to say about immigration reform, the environment, or national health care, all issues with which they were deeply concerned. It would also benefit from more detailed examples of their exegesis since what made them progressive evangelicals was their claim that they were reading the Bible more correctly than their conservative co-religionists. And it does not offer an explicit appraisal of how effective the progressive evangelicals were in realizing their aims, though by inference one can surmise that their influence was limited if not negligible. Which begs the question: Why?
While positions espoused by some progressive evangelicals clearly stretched the boundaries of what conservative evangelicals could be expected to accept (The Other Side refused to condemn abortion), on many issues (the covert wars in Central America, poverty in the U.S, apartheid in South Africa) they offered more compelling biblical arguments than their conservative evangelical siblings. That their appeals fell mostly on deaf ears suggests that, for all of their vaunted loyalty to the Bible, mainstream American evangelicals were actually more beholden to a conservative version of American culture. Perhaps that is an overly harsh verdict; the polarization of American politics under the influence of talk radio and political demagogues has made it difficult for all of us to find reasonable alternatives to extremist points of view. Yet as this book documents, such alternatives were on offer. It is truly a tragedy that so few Christians were listening.