The 2008 election of Barack Obama reinvigorated an ongoing discussion within evangelicalism about the nature of its relationship to the political order. It is a discussion that will almost certainly receive a new infusion of energy during the 2012 election cycle. But analyses of evangelical captivity to politics and purported generational shifts in ideology have come close to reaching a saturation point, bringing evangelical introspection to the edge of exhaustion. Of the writing about evangelicals and politics, there is apparently no end.
Marcia Pally's America's New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good (Eerdmans) is one of the latest attempts to understand the direction of evangelicalism's political priorities. For Pally, the emergence of the "new evangelicals"—figures like Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, and David Gushee—reveals important shifts, in both substantive beliefs and habits of engagement. She sees this movement as "new" because its members embrace "beliefs and practices that have advanced religion, liberal democracy, and just economic distribution." She contrasts the new with the "old evangelicals" (though Pally does not call them that), whose political engagement she believes has been sullied by allegedly "prototheocratic yearnings" and an attachment to free-market capitalism. The new evangelicals, she argues, allow religious convictions to shape their political vision, but nevertheless "support pluralism, economic justice, and liberal democratic government." Whether the new evangelicals are championing ideals wholly different from their forebears, or simply imbuing them with different meanings, is not always clear. Pally's presumption, for instance, that "economic justice" is antithetical to free-market economics is astonishing, given the enormous debate over the question.
While Pally presents the "new evangelicals" as an antidote to perceived evangelical vices, her narrative is occasionally given to overstatement.
Take, for instance, those supposedly "prototheocratic yearnings." True, Pally's stance later softens into suggesting that evangelicals have "at times" attempted to "use the state to impose religious views on the nation." But even this skirts the boundaries of hyperbole. Unless Pally thinks that evangelical opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage are exclusively theological in nature—a highly debatable contention—she is left only with school prayer as an example of such attempts. Evangelical activism may have sectarian underpinnings, but evangelicals have shown a remarkable willingness to abide by the rules of liberal democracy in working—through legislatures, courts, and grassroots initiatives—to "impose" their views.
Not So New
Pally makes no attempt at any statistical survey, instead approaching her subject through blogs, newsletters, sermons, and other expressions of the "new evangelicalism." Transcripts of interviews with prominent figures like Richard Cizik and Joel Hunter punctuate her commentary, lending the reader a firsthand familiarity that is both interesting and illuminating.
Yet whether the new evangelicals are really new depends upon our understanding of what came before them. And unfortunately, Pally's understanding makes it difficult to discern what's actually new about the movement. For instance, she argues that the new evangelicals practice a "third way" of political engagement, avoiding the twin traps of theocratic ambition and privatized piety. They do this through "voluntarist associations" that "advocate for their positions through public education, lobbying, coalition building, and negotiation."
This "civil society activism" is a commendable approach, but couldn't Pally apply the same description to the Religious Right? Historically, this movement was propelled by a cluster of voluntary parachurch organizations—many of them avowedly non-sectarian in their approach—that worked to influence society by means of lobbying and public persuasion. Moreover, and somewhat ironically, traditional approaches to limited government have often been justified precisely because they leave room for the mediating institutions of civil society, rather than relying upon the coercive powers of the state. Because Pally conflates conservatism with what amounts to libertarian economics, she overlooks the possibility of a mutually reinforcing relationship between "civil society activism" and limited government principles.
What's more, Pally passes over any discussion of "compassionate conservatism," the more activist school of thought espoused by George W. Bush and cheered on by many fellow evangelicals. (Conservative commentator Fred Barnes famously re-labeled it "big government conservatism.") The advent of compassionate conservatism suggests that evangelicals, in their association with the Republican Party, have not, for good or ill, hewed inflexibly to a libertarian orthodoxy. Widespread evangelical support for the 2008 campaign of Mike Huckabee, who was (perhaps unfairly) spurned by mainstream Republicans for being too comfortable with government involvement, confirms this point.
Closer to the heart of the book, though, is Pally's suggestion that the new evangelicals are distinguished by their endorsement of "church-state separation and constitutionally based law." Here again Pally's lack of substantive argument about the "old evangelicals" makes it hard to discern where the differences actually lie. With respect to "church-state separation," Jon A. Shields demonstrates in The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (2009) the great pains to which evangelicals have gone to present their views on abortion in non-sectarian terms. And as for endorsing the principle of "constitutionally based law," this does not preclude working, through constitutionally legitimate channels, to reform or undo laws deemed unjust. In this regard, evangelicals' abortion and same-sex marriage, both in the courtroom and at the ballot box, seem to exemplify the highest respect for constitutionally based law.
Pally's chapter on the new evangelicals' underlying beliefs departs noticeably from her generally dispassionate, scholarly approach. She quotes virtually no new evangelical activists or theologians, and instead develops Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder's concept of "revolutionary subordination," analyzing how Scripture understands Jesus as a political actor. It is an odd moment of normative political theology in the middle of a book that presents itself as examining the beliefs of others.
Strangeness aside, the chapter is excellent and very well balanced. Pally suggests that Christian political engagement should obey "positive law in all but extreme circumstances, defend its country under the extreme condition of invasion, and [spend] most of its time serving those within the church, the stranger, and the enemy." This is wise counsel, so far as it goes, but ought we simply to infer that new evangelicals would endorse Pally's principles?
The answer isn't clear. On the one hand, in presenting their underlying beliefs, Pally comes close to describing a consistent, unified framework out of which policy decisions might be made. But in presenting this belief system in her own voice, she leaves it unclear whether the new evangelicals understand and abide by their own framework. After all, Pally repeatedly underscores the issue-by-issue approach that often characterizes young evangelical politics. It can be difficult to discern whether new evangelical activism arises from a unified moral philosophy, or whether its piecemeal approach reflects a more pragmatic spirit.
Pally makes clear, though, why evangelicals will and must continue reflecting on their relationship with state authority. In a liberal society, marked by a crowded and contentious public square, an impulse toward introspection helps preserve a proper ordering of religious faith and political power. The new evangelicals certainly understand that such vigilance is a price worth paying for liberty. But so too, I suspect, do their counterparts of "old."
Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (Bethany House). He blogs at MereOrtho doxy.com.
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