The Political Legacy of Progressive Evangelicals
By Eric C. Miller | October 27, 2015
For all the media attention paid to the Religious Right, much less energy has been spent looking into its counterpart, the Religious Left. And yet, when Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, he appealed directly to religious voters, pairing his Christian faith with his progressive politics—something his Democratic predecessors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did as well. More recently, the world has watched as Pope Francis has brought a progressive tone to the papacy, leaving many American pundits to marvel at his message and delivery.
In reality, progressive faith and political power have a long relationship in American history. In his recent book, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, Brantley W. Gasaway delves into the work of contemporary progressive evangelicals—through figures like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider—whose political activism, starting in the 1960s, diverged from the louder voices of their conservative brethren. Over email, Eric C. Miller interviewed Gasaway, who is an associate professor of religious studies at Bucknell University. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
R&P: You trace the history of progressive evangelicalism back to the 1970s, rather than to the “Social Gospel” advocacy of earlier years. Why focus on the last four decades?
BG: As the pioneering leaders of the progressive evangelical movement began insisting in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Christians have a religious obligation to promote social and political reforms of injustices, they certainly sounded similar to Social Gospel advocates. Yet the Social Gospel tradition played almost no role in inspiring or influencing the rise of contemporary progressive evangelicalism. In fact, early leaders disavowed any connection to the Social Gospel tradition, for they wanted to maintain credibility within a branch of American Christianity that regarded the Social Gospel as heretical.
The stigma of the Social Gospel within modern evangelicalism resulted from its association with liberal Protestantism. The Social Gospel tradition arose in the midst of theological controversies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that divided evangelicals from more liberal Protestants. With many adopting the name “fundamentalists,” evangelicals accused theological liberals of heresy for revising or even rejecting central traditional doctrines (the “fundamentals” of the faith) in light of modern biblical criticism, scientific advances, and increasing awareness of religious pluralism. Evangelicals especially condemned Protestant liberals’ embrace of the Social Gospel, which emphasized “the sinfulness of the social order” and progressive reforms of social injustices.
Liberal Protestants began prioritizing social and political activism as much as—and often more than—proselytization and individual salvation. In response, fundamentalist evangelicals denounced the Social Gospel for disparaging evangelism and deemphasizing the necessity of personal conversions. They distanced themselves from liberal Protestants’ concerns for social justice, largely shunning politics in order to focus on religious campaigns and spiritual issues.
This disdain for the Social Gospel was still strong among evangelicals in the 1960s and 1970s, and therefore the founders of contemporary progressive evangelicalism insisted that they were not following in the footsteps of liberal Protestants. These leaders appealed first and foremost to biblical arguments in order to challenge most evangelicals’ narrow spiritual concerns and apolitical conservatism. While faithful Christians must never minimize or neglect their evangelistic duties, they declared, they must also fulfill biblical commands to care for people’s physical welfare and to combat social injustices.
Thus the coalescence of the progressive evangelical movement in the early 1970s marked a new chapter within twentieth-century evangelicalism. When contemporary progressive evangelicals have looked for historical precedents and inspiration, they have pointed not to the Social Gospel but rather to nineteenth-century evangelicals who participated in both revivals and social reform campaigns.
R&P: There are certain gatekeepers on the right who would argue that, since modern evangelicalism was born out of fundamentalism, it is conservative by definition. Some on the left have also been wary of progressive evangelicals, due to their ambivalence on gay rights and opposition to abortion. Is “evangelical left” a contradiction in terms?
BG: Even though the combination of theological conservatism and political progressivism has been anomalous in recent American history, “evangelical left” and “progressive evangelical” are not oxymorons.
“Evangelical” is a religious rather than political identity. While scholars and partisans debate the exact definition of the label, most agree that evangelicals are Protestant Christians dedicated to (1) the primary authority of the Bible; (2) the necessity of spiritual rebirth (conversion) through personal faith in Christ’s atonement for one’s sins; and (3) activism in spreading “the good news” (evangel) of Christ’s redemptive work. In relative terms, these characteristics and their usual adherence to traditionally orthodox doctrines do make evangelicals more theologically conservative than liberal Protestants.
But theological conservatism does not necessarily entail political conservatism. A significant number of nineteenth-century American evangelicals—inspired by leaders such as revivalist Charles Finney, Frances Willard of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and Democratic politician William Jennings Bryan—participated in progressive and sometimes radical campaigns to end slavery, redress economic injustice, promote women’s rights, reform prisons, enhance public education, and promote peace.
In more recent times, President Jimmy Carter and Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield were both well-known progressive evangelical politicians. Outside of the American context, evangelical Christians have always been found across the political spectrum depending on historical, cultural, and social factors. Pointing to these facts, contemporary progressive evangelicals have responded to critics by arguing that the staunch political conservatism of recent American evangelicals is the true anomaly.
Several years ago, a broad coalition of prominent leaders issued a public statement—“An Evangelical Manifesto”—in order to combat perceptions of all evangelicals as political conservatives. “Evangelicalism must be defined theologically and not politically,” they maintained. “[W]e Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party [or] partisan ideology.” Progressive evangelical leaders such as Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, and ethicist David Gushee were among the charter signatories to this document.
To be sure, some vocal leaders of the Religious Right have questioned the evangelical identity of those with left-leaning politics. At the same time, many on the political left have not welcomed contemporary progressive evangelicals as allies based upon their opposition to abortion, conservative sexual ethics, and calls for the robust role of religion in public life. These suspicions from both the Religious Right and political left have resulted in progressive evangelicals’ marginalization in America’s culture wars and partisan politics over the past four decades.
R&P: The refusal to mirror the Religious Right in political tactics has been principled, but has it been effective? How do you rate the success of these groups and their leaders?
BG: It is tempting to view contemporary progressive evangelicalism as a quixotic and largely unsuccessful movement. Over the past four decades, its leaders and groups have remained a minority faction within evangelicalism while their conservative counterparts in the Religious Right have captured the attention of the media, Republican politicians, and many evangelicals themselves.
Several factors allowed the Religious Right to eclipse the evangelical left in American politics. Progressive evangelicals decried the Religious Right’s partisan yet potent partnership with Republicans, but their own unusual combination of political positions left them without clear allies in America’s dichotomous political landscape. Progressive leaders also had much less access to financial and media resources than Christian conservatives. Not least, the Religious Right capitalized much more effectively than the evangelical left on most evangelicals’ fearful reactions to cultural secularization, legalized abortion, communist and other threats to American security, and the expansion of government programs.
Yet even as the Religious Right overshadowed politically progressive evangelicals, they successfully carved out a niche within evangelicalism. In the process, leaders such as Ron Sider and Tony Campolo effectively pushed many other evangelicals to recognize and to respond to social problems. Despite questioning progressive evangelicals’ political priorities and public policy preferences, most conservative and moderate evangelicals today also acknowledge their religious responsibility to care for those suffering and to promote social justice—a notable change from four decades ago. Evangelicals of all political persuasions can be found alleviating poverty, combatting sex trafficking, promoting HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, and supporting domestic and international relief and development work. Younger generations of evangelicals are particularly active in such endeavors.
In addition, progressive evangelical leaders and groups have occasionally exerted influence in national politics. For example, Jim Wallis and others associated with Sojourners played central roles in campaigns throughout the 1980s that challenged and limited President Ronald Reagan’s interventionist policies in Central America. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, Wallis’s public profile has increased through his criticism of President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” and tax cuts, his participation in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and his close relationship with President Barack Obama.
While it is hard to fully measure the effectiveness and success of progressive evangelical groups and leaders, it is clear that they have created and sustained a dynamic, persistent alternative to the Religious Right that has received support from a minority of evangelicals over the past half-century.
R&P: Has there been any significant collaboration with mainline Protestants, progressive Catholics or Jews?
BG: Progressive evangelicals have regularly participated in ecumenical and even interfaith initiatives. Without substantial support within their own evangelical tradition, they often collaborated with other religious groups who shared their political goals but not their theological convictions. Such alliances were similar to those of evangelical leaders of the Religious Right who cooperated with politically conservative Catholics and Jews.
In fact, Sojourners—the most prominent progressive evangelical publication—has not been uniquely evangelical for many decades. Since the late 1970s, it has attracted ecumenical audiences and included both mainline Protestants and Catholics as contributing editors and authors.
In order to increase their prominence and influence, progressive evangelical leaders worked with ecumenical groups to issue public statements and to coordinate social justice campaigns. For example, throughout the 1980s progressive evangelicals joined other peace activists in widespread protests against America’s military interventions in Central America and nuclear weapons development program. In the mid-1990s, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo led the formation of Call to Renewal, an ecumenical coalition focused on economic justice, race inequalities, and environmental concerns. Prior to the United States’ invasions of Iraq in both 1991 and 2003, which were supported by most evangelical Christians, progressive evangelical and mainline leaders worked together to sway public opinion against the wars.
Despite these regular strategic alliances and coordinated efforts—and despite their oft-stated goal of countering the Religious Right—progressive evangelical leaders repudiated the label “Religious Left.” They claimed to promote “biblical” politics that challenged and transcended both the political right and the political left, and thus it remained strategically important for progressive evangelicals to resist any accusation that they were ideologically and politically partisan—the very sin they accused the Religious Right of committing.
R&P: In a recent piece for The New Republic, Elizabeth Bruenig asked whether the evangelical left may soon “rise again.” It’s a question that suggests a period of past prominence, decline, and potential return. Do you accept that characterization? And do you think progressive evangelicalism may be on the rise?
BG: I agree with the broad historical narrative of progressive evangelicalism as once prominent (in the nineteenth century), then diminished (from the early twentieth century to the 1970s), and recently revitalized (since the 1970s).
But Bruenig’s article largely examines only this most recent phase of contemporary progressive evangelicalism. She overstates the political influence of the evangelical left in the 1970s—describing it as a “thriving branch” of evangelicalism that helped propel Jimmy Carter to the presidency, when in actuality it had become only a spirited minority faction. After ably summarizing why the Religious Right became predominant from the 1980s into the twenty-first century, Bruenig concludes by wondering if the tides might be changing. She suggests that the disillusionment of many evangelicals with President George W. Bush and younger evangelicals’ dissatisfaction with the Religious Right’s partisanship may offer an opportunity for progressive evangelicals to “reemerge as a political force.”
So, “can the Evangelical Left rise again,” as the title of Bruenig’s article asks? I doubt it, at least in the politicized framework in which Bruenig asks the question.
Despite the modest success and influence of progressive evangelicals on specific issues, the contemporary evangelical left has not been a prominent political force. Their discomfort with both the Republican and Democratic parties—neither of which show any signs of becoming more amenable to progressive evangelicals—limits such possibilities. Bruenig nostalgically looks to Jimmy Carter as an example, but it is hard to imagine a politician like him succeeding in the current political landscape.
In addition, the evangelical left is in a phase of transition that may undermine its potential and coherence. Changes in leadership are occurring, as two of the most recognizable figures—Ron Sider and Tony Campolo—recently retired.
Perhaps most important, the issue of same-sex marriage has become a divisive one. Until recently, most progressive evangelicals supported gay civil rights but also argued that Christian communities and the government should restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. In the last two years, however, several prominent leaders—including Jim Wallis, David Gushee, and Tony Campolo—have changed their minds and affirmed covenantal same-sex marriages. These decisions have further diminished their credibility among conservatives and alienated potential allies among moderate evangelicals.
There are indeed clear signs that more and more evangelicals—especially younger generations—believe that they have a responsibility to work for social justice. In that sense, one could argue that a progressive impulse within evangelicalism is on the rise. Yet it is unclear if this progressive impulse will translate into greater support for left-leaning politics. While I suspect that the evangelical left will remain a vocal faction, I am skeptical that progressive evangelicalism will soon regain the type of influence that it had in the nineteenth century.
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