Their involvement may become as misguided as was the earlier activism of liberal Christianity.

Evangelical Christians are swarming back into the public arena. After a generation of withdrawal from public concerns in the wake of the modernist social gospel, they are “going public” and getting socially involved on a grand scale.

Resurgent evangelical interest in politics is to be welcomed and commended. Yet some observers fear—and with good reason—that this involvement may eventually become as politically misguided as was the activism of liberal Christianity earlier in this century. Some even consider 1980 the fateful year of evangelical ingress into politics, a year of decisive long-term consequences both for the United States and for the future of evangelical churches.

During the present political campaign evangelical spokesmen have been more involved in political affairs, directly or indirectly, than for many decades. A colorful “Washington for Jesus” rally, which its sponsors at first hoped would draw a million participants, rallied less than half that number, but the throng nonetheless notably outnumbered the multitudes who welcomed Pope John Paul II to the national capital. Leaders in the electronic church, a euphemism for television religion, have formulated specific questions that churchgoers are expected to address to their congressmen on political positions ranging from abortion and a balanced budget to the Panama Canal treaty and SALT II. This has been deplored as a spiritual litmus test that suspends the Christian authenticity of congressmen on particular political commitments. But the nonevangelical ecumenists who have long lobbied Congress for their own approved specifics were hardly in the best position to complain.

As the presidential election draws near, some churchmen are again probing the possibility of rival “Clergy for Carter,” or “Clergy for Reagan,” or “Clergy for Anderson” committees. On the ground that this was not the proper role of the clergy, I myself frustrated a “Clergy for Nixon” initiative at a 1972 pre-election White House briefing, when a prominent New England pastor asked invited churchmen publicly to endorse Nixon’s candidacy. In some local races Protestant ministers—usually fundamentalists and political conservatives—are running for office. Pope John Paul dampened the political aspirations of Catholic clergy recently on the ground that ordination vows commit them not to unraveling earthly political affairs but to elucidating the spiritual and moral principles of the transcendent kingdom of God. Some evangelicals advocate that only “born-again” candidates be elected to office. Most Christians would probably protest if Jews were to vote only for Zionists or Catholics only for those who believe in papal infallibility. The notion that a born-again president will solve all the nation’s problems has run upon hard times since Jimmy Carter has occupied the White House. Spiritual rebirth bestows no special competence for resolving political specifics, although it should assure a high level of moral integrity. By remarkable coincidence, all three presidential candidates claim to be evangelical Christians. Yet each declares the others politically inadequate to the presidency. Politics, as Bismarck observed, is no exact science. Evangelical or nonevangelical candidates alike might add confusion to inexactitude, but the grassroots multitudes are calling for leaders of godly character and commitment in national affairs, and for an end to the erosion of biblical values.

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Complicating the present election debate is the emergence of several evangelical groups professing to provide scriptural guidance for the evangelical community. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority promotes corporate prayer in public schools, as does Leadership Foundation, whereas the Baptist Joint Public Affairs Committee along with the National Council of Churches resists it. Coalition for Christian Action, Christian Voice, Christian Embassy, and lesser known groups all actively support politically conservative candidates. Heartened by the impact of prolife forces and the Supreme Court’s decision against welfare funding of abortions, evangelical groups hope to expand their campaign against liberal misperceptions of the good.

Does this evangelical surge into the political realm indicate that evangelical revival has crested to the level of significant social awakening? The great evangelistic crusades of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England struck so deeply into history that they elicited the designation “evangelical awakening.” Their notable impact upon public conscience and legislation precipitated a wave of prison reform and led to outlawing of slavery and of child labor, and to other political changes. Even nonbelievers more and more judged community attitudes and commitments by biblical principles: social conviction and sensitivity consequently underwent public transformation.

When Time magazine designated 1976 “the year of the evangelical” many of the movement’s spokesmen hurriedly and prematurely spoke of “evangelical awakening.” But the present expansive political thrust does not of itself mean that contemporary American evangelicals are as politically aware as were earlier evangelicals. The current evangelical return to the political arena involves no comprehensive political philosophy or program; it has a notably attenuated range of specifics. The evangelical agenda in public affairs is conspicuously narrow when set alongside ecumenical Protestant, Roman Catholic, or even Reform Jewish projections. The ecumenical reach extends comprehensively to almost all political concerns, even if it almost predictably signals a liberal or radical direction in politico-economic affairs, and notably neglects such issues as Communist oppression, inflation, and crime. Evangelical political activity in the main counters this socialistic trend and promotes a revival of voluntarism. But its social vision is fragmentary, often lacks substance and strategy, and focuses mainly on a one-issue or single-candidate approach. One troubled evangelical observer has already suggested that on the morning after election day some leading Christian magazine should carry a major article analyzing “Where the Evangelicals Went Wrong.”

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What troubles some observers is that many evangelical leaders leap presumptuously from prayer breakfasts or from individual spiritual rebirth to assuredly authentic and predictable public policy consequences. This expectation does great disservice, since it detours evangelicals around intellectual scrutiny of political options and from informed decisions on them. One need not disapprove of national or state prayer breakfasts to note that because they gather leaders holding divergent political (and often religious) views they can hardly be expected to yield specific public policy consequences. Discussion of political particularities would likely be considered spiritually divisive. The “Washington for Jesus” rally finally abandoned any agenda of political specifics in order merely to register the conviction by a massive throng of godly citizens that America is doomed unless it heeds the will of God in national life. Some observers remarked that for the $1 million cost of staging the rally, evangelicals could have given much sharper focus to specific changes they desire in the political arena.

Evangelical leaders themselves are asking some unflattering questions about those among them who are aggressively organizing and mobilizing evangelical political opinion and action, but who are Johnny-come-lately to political concerns. Personal prominence, patriotic image, institutional mailing lists are all involved. Moral Majority’s newsletter reaches 250,000 persons, including 70,000 conservative pastors. The deeper question is whether evangelicals are getting adequate guidance as they move into the 1980 political context.

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Evangelical social action is in some respects a whirlpool of contemporary confusion with spokesmen divergently aligned on all sides while professing to speak the evangelical view. These leaders sometimes seem to speak past or at each other, more than to the public scene, without clarifying differences of principle.

The magazine Sojourners, whose point of view reflects a minority of the evangelical constituency, gives the impression of much wider representation through skillful use of symbols that encourage public media coverage. It almost never speaks on abortion, promotes military disarmament, and tends to blame America for the ills of the world much in the mood of ecumenical sociopolitical analysis. CHRISTIANITY TODAY, the establishment evangelical voice, on the other hand, in its recent Gallup Poll of evangelical social attitudes, did not even probe the two questions—military disarmament and nuclear power—that an international ecumenical conference of scientists and churchmen meeting last year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology addressed with most conviction. Eternity magazine has tried to rise above evangelical divergence by a series of panel discussions that reflect evangelical conflicts and reach for greater understanding, but with qualified success.

Many evangelicals are intellectually unprepared for energetic social engagements. They do not discern the connections between theology and ethical theory and strategy. They wish to go beyond mere negative criticism of controversial ecumenical commitments, yet are largely cast on nonevangelical initiatives. A program whose theological basis is unsure, and whose content and strategy are debatable, provides no effective alternative either to costly social indifference or to a pernicious social ethic. Encouraged by ecumenical activists, some evangelicals are even prone to revise modernist social gospel assumptions in the realm of public policy, while others fall prey to Marxist-oriented liberation theology. The former approach assumes that socialist legislation will rectify the ills of society, and the latter view does not exclude violence as a means of advancing it.

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Pull The Lever Knowing Why


1. Don’t substitute good intentions for inaction. Merely daydream about voting, and you’ll forfeit your vote in an age when political liberty has a fragile survival. In Communist lands people can vote only for the party in power. Failure to vote where political alternatives are present is to do a disservice to political freedom.

2. Don’t stay away from the polls even if you can’t support any of the nominees. A write-in vote is better than no vote at all, since it says something to the existing national parties. The ballot will always contain some names and some issues deserving of your vote: support for them will encourage future meritorious candidates.

3. Don’t make up your mind on the basis of television commercials projected by mass media experts to manipulate viewer response, but make up your mind before you reach the polling booth. Don’t decide on the basis of glamorous personality, patriotic rhetoric, or pragmatic flexibility. Which candidate or team of leaders can most reasonably be counted on to do what they promise and to weather all crises desirably? Vote in good conscience for the best-qualified candidates and for better laws. No candidate will be perfect, no law will be beyond future improvement. But the nation can nonetheless be put on the road to higher things through political resolution of conflicting claims if citizens truly seek to advance the will of the living God through their preferred options.

4. Don’t allow a candidate’s religious faith to be finally decisive. To be sure, a declared atheist or relativist holding no fixed moral principles can hardly be counted on for permanent commitments. But this year the religious issue will count for less even among evangelicals since all three presidential candidates claim evangelical links. Jimmy Carter’s Southern Baptist ties are said to be good for 2 million votes; among independent evangelicals Ronald Reagan has greater appeal. John Anderson has minimized evangelical commitments as an independent candidate, but nonetheless has a noteworthy following. Truly Christian loyalties should mean that a candidate’s character is predictable under pressure, but it does not of itself guarantee political acumen.

5. A candidate’s personal integrity, moral example, readiness to esteem national interest above either personal advantage or considerations of image, his experience and competence in public affairs, record for fulfilling political promises, formulation of constructive long-range and short-range solutions, and the national and international consequences of his leadership are all relevant considerations. Worth reading and analysis are position papers on major issues that every serious candidate prepares. Public political debates often cast further light on specific interests; in the absence of this, direct correspondence with candidates will clarify some points.

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6. Is the candidate sensitive to the needs of the poor and of disadvantaged minorities, without discouraging their need to work hard and to contribute to the public good, or without neglecting the plight of the elderly and of workers whose taxes and dwindling resources discourage work and thrift? No less important than care about the impoverished is concern over a debased currency. What economic policy will encourage able-bodied citizens to earn a just wage that provides food, clothing, and shelter?

7. Say a prayer as you enter the polling booth. A skeptic about the whole process once called modern politics a conflict of private interests masquerading as a contest of principles, and he distinguished politicians from statesmen by affirming that all the latter are dead. But in The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce remarks that the vote is “the instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.” The Bible exhorts us to pray for rulers and to support the good. Pray for whoever in God’s providence will be responsible for leading the world’s most powerful nation in its most difficult hour. Ask God to help that leader to do the right, and to help you promote justice and godliness in the life of the nation.

8. Then open your eyes wide as you pull the lever.

A group of Washington-area churchmen recently identified the overall social issues that most concern evangelicals as government funding of abortion, homosexuality, church-state issues centering in IRS policy—impositions on private schools, economic concern for a balanced budget (through bureaucratic retrenchment without weakening defense commitments in resisting Communist expansionism). Concern for the poor has been expressed mainly through private agencies.

There is growing pressure to expand this agenda in order to focus on the impact of television on public attitudes and morals, the issue of secular humanism in the public schools, the assault on the family as the basic unit of society, and international concern for religious liberty. But it will be no comprehensive gain if evangelicals broaden their agenda in the absence of an overall social vision, political philosophy, and public strategy.

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This does not mean that evangelical Christianity must speak with a monolithic voice in public affairs, far less that some self-appointed clerical hierarchy needs to tell evangelicals for whom to vote. Biblical revelation does not speak directly to the particularities of politics. Scripture leaves translation of revealed principles into viable political decisions to the conscience and will of mankind, and equally devout individuals may disagree over the best program for achieving common goals.

A particular issue or particular candidate may indeed at times be of paramount political importance. But if evangelicals participate only in one-issue or one-candidate politics and do not address the broader principles and party platforms, they may unwittingly eliminate competent office holders whose cumulative experience, strategic committee posts, and stance on other issues not currently in debate, ought not to be ignored. If they settle only for single-issue or fragmentary involvement, evangelicals will treat public concerns as but a marginal appendage to evangelism, and remain highly vulnerable to the more comprehensive political strategies of nonevangelical groups. A complete program of social involvement that aims to affect and mold the course of events will ask not only what issues need to be addressed, but at what stage they are most effectively addressed, and how. More important, ideal social engagement will spur evangelicals to pursue not only a protective special interest in the public arena, but those concerns also that transcend self-interest and coincide with universal human rights and duties.

Evangelicals need positive guidance at a time when many agencies solicit their support for this or that special cause. More sources of helpful information are available than most churchgoers recognize. A recent essay titled “Can My Vote Be Biblical?” (see Sept. 19 issue, p. 14), issued by a number of evangelical cosigners, calls attention to the paperback Almanac of American Politics that presents profiles of the voting record of congressmen, evaluations by private organizations such as the League of Women Voters, and reports identifying financial contributions to candidates, which are available for a small fee from the Federal Election Commission. Competent analysis of numerous public issues has also been done by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, whose director, Ernest W. Lefever, sees a merely one-issue approach as the end of a responsible political ethic.

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In moving more fully into public affairs, evangelicals need to be alert to three great overarching considerations.

1. The Bible is our guide in political affairs as well as in other areas. But the Old Testament does not superimpose its blueprint for the Hebrew theocracy on the pluralistic pattern of civil government in the New Testament. Yet God stipulates the rule of justice by which all nations will be and are now being measured and which provides the only basis for enduring world order and peace. The New Testament teaches that, although presently unrecognized by the world, the risen Christ is even now Lord of the cosmos. His people extend his lordship by promoting in public life the justice that God stipulates and sanctions. Christian clergy and educators must therefore inculcate the biblically revealed principles of social ethics.

2. The Bible leaves to the people of God the application of revealed principles to concrete situations that call for specific laws. We are to weigh all particular options in the light of biblical principles. The Bible gives few rules, although it does give some (e.g., “pay your taxes,” “pay just wages”). Specific applications are left to public determination, and those specifics, although answerable to transcendent norms, may well differ from place to place and from time to time. But Christians are to work for just laws and to protest injustice in the public realm.

3. Among biblical concerns specially relevant today are the primacy of the family as a lifelong monogamous union, the dignity and worth of fetal life, the plight of the poor and oppressed, the right and need to work, the pursuit of world peace and order, the just use of power to contain the expansionist policies of aggressor nations, and the preservation of natural resources.

From the governing principles contained in the Bible many inferences can be drawn. Legislation should benefit family structures, not penalize them. It should preserve the civil rights of all, including homosexuals, but not approve and advance immoral lifestyles. Government-subsidized extinction of fetal life on the basis of cost-benefit analysis is wicked, the more so when government also finances experiments to bring new forms of life into being. Something is seriously wrong when a hospital cannot sew up an injured teen-ager’s body wounds without notifying her parents, while that same teen-ager can have an abortion without parents even knowing about it, and as easily as having her ears pierced.

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Massive and annually escalating military expenditures should not be heralded as unmitigated good news, but as a tragic necessity, one that arises not by divine determination but through the shameful aggression of predator powers that invade weak neighbor nations and through an exaggerated human trust in the saving power of missiles. One of the bitter ironies of a world torn by international struggle is that we in America—arms exporter to the world—find these very same arms sometimes arrayed in battle against us after our forces abandon them or when friendly nations fall to hostile powers.

The earth is the Lord’s and we are responsible stewards in our use of its treasures. Implicit in the biblical view is a mandate to preserve earth’s limited resources. No nation, no century, no generation is to consume greedily or destroy what is useful to all mankind.

Yet the Bible does not directly address many specific issues being debated today—whether to develop nuclear power, whether to develop nuclear missiles, how and when to ration gasoline, and so on. But no just answers to such questions can be achieved unless biblical principles are honored. Citizens motivated by a concern for justice may make divergent inferences and different applications, but some options are clearly ruled out. None will be perfect, and most will be subject to revision. But a society that pursues justice in its commitments and acts out of a desire to honor the will of God in public affairs has the assurance of God’s blessing. To receive a divine benediction upon its public engagement no less than upon its evangelistic and missionary effort should be the evangelical goal in the modern world.


St. Mark XII:1–12

Left alone, he put together the Man

from out-at-the-elbow, out-of-style, cast-off

stuff of several generations. He did it:

used the rejections to make an affirmation,

a Yes, converting the noisy, self-serving

No’s to a quiet, working, cornerstone Amen.



If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,

Like to a shell dishabited,

Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,

And say, “This is not dead,”

And fill thee with Himself instead;

But thou art all replete with very thou,

And hast such shrewd activity,

That, when He comes, He says, “This is enow

Unto itself—’Twere better let it be:

It is so small and full, there is no room for Me.”

T. E. BROWN (1830–1897)

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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