(This is the first in a series of sixteen posts summarizing, for discussion purposes, a collection of sixteen essays edited by Ronald J. Sider and Diane Knippers on public policy.)
Part I – Learning from the Past
Chapter 1 - Seeking a Place: Evangelical Protestants and Public Engagement in the Twentieth Century.
By John C. Green, Professor of Political Science, University of Akron.
Green gives a brief history of political engagement by Evangelicals over the last century. He categorizes identifies three avenues of engagement:
- movement politics – challenges to political institutions
- quiescent politics – detachment from political institutions
- regularized politics – adaptation to political institutions
Green believes that the first two avenues dominated Evangelicalism in the 1920-1940s. After 1940, with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals, regularized politics became part of the mix. From about 1970 on, quiescent politics waned. Having defined these avenues, Green explains that American Protestantism fractured into mainline an Evangelical camps. He identifies three Evangelical streams that emerged. First, there were denominations that emerged in direct response to modernizing events in the mainline churches. These denominations would include the Holiness, Pentecostal, Neo-evangelical, and Charismatic movements. Second, there were ethnic churches like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Christian Reformed Church. Third, there were the Southern Protestant churches, most notably the Southern Baptists. From here Green gives a chronology of events that affected Evangelical engagement.
1901-1940, A People Displaced
Green believes that during the first half of this period politics was not significantly different from the politics of the 19th Century. World War I was the turning point. Increasing fragmentation in American Protestantism erupted in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. A focal point of the controversy became the evolution debate. Anti-evolution organizations sprang up and the issue reached a climax when evolution opponent and former Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan squared off against secularist Clarence Darrow. It was a show trial but Darrow succeeded, with the help of the press, in making Bryan look foolish to the entire nation. Bryan died unexpectedly a few days after the trial.
Heading into the 1930s the mood of Evangelicalism became increasingly pessimistic. Political engagement tended to move from the national to local levels. However, events like the arrival of the New Deal and the repeal of Prohibition convinced many Evangelicals that America was in moral decay. Many began to question the value of being involved in politics and focused on evangelism for change.
1941-1970, A People in Flux
As Evangelicals began to turn more exclusively toward evangelism, a need was felt for greater and more effective cooperation. Two groups emerged in response to this challenge. First, was the more separatist and strictly fundamentalist wing formed organizations like the American Council of Christian Church in (ACCC) 1941 and the International Council of Christian Churches in 1948, led by Carl McIntire. Second, were what some called the neo-Evangelicals led by Carl F. Henry who was instrumental in founding the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942. The NAE saw themselves as a reform movement to fundamentalism and advocated social and political engagement.
The ACCC, ICCC and affiliated groups became increasingly strident about anti-communism and antagonistic to the aims of the NAE. The movements parted ways in 1957. The former group went on to relative obscurity and isolation. The NAE contingent popularized and given credibility by Henry’s Christianity Today and the work of evangelist Billy Graham, grew in numbers but still seemed reticent about political action. The turmoil of the 1960s movements concerning civil rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, and war opposition drew some evangelicals, largely from colleges and seminaries, into political engagement.
1971-2000, A People Prominent
Green gives a wider ranging overview of this era. He notes the significance of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women in 1972 and the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision as turning points in Evangelical political concern. He points to the 1973 Chicago Declaration as significant event (It led to the formation of Evangelicals for Social Action.) Green also notes that this re-engagement with politics led to a more diverse if somewhat divided Evangelical movement. Some of the trends he noted were the, ‘… the moderation of the separatist impulse among fundamentalists, the development of the ‘electronic church’ of televangelists, and the rise of the suburban “megachurches.” (p. 26) The election of “born-again” president Jimmy Carter gave Evangelicalism a new respectability but by 1980 many Evangelicals were dissatisfied with Carter's leadership and the direction of the nation.
It was also during the 1970s that the “Christian Right” was born. Responding to events that they saw as threatening to traditional family values (e.g. abortion, sexual-permissiveness, no-fault divorce, pornography and homosexuality) some Evangelical began to mobilize to stem the tide. Secular humanism came to be seen as the primary problems as popularized by Francis Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto (1981). Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority around 1980 and it became the most prominent of a host of similar “values” political organizations. Most of these organizations were spent by the end of the decade. In 1991, we witnessed the organization of the Christian Coalition by Pat Robertson and the Christian Right revived, mostly in opposition to the election of President Bill Clinton.
The reality was that after all this political action little of the Christian Right’s agenda was accomplished. By the late 1990s, former leaders like Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson had become disillusioned with politics and believed that Evangelicals needed to get back to evangelism as a way to address social ills. Green believes this is a re-emergence of quiescent politics.
Green also acknowledges the presence and contribution of “completely pro-life” groups like Evangelicals for Social Action, led by Ron Sider, who have embraced a set of political perspectives that are a mixture of what many would consider to be left and right positions. Center for Public Justice was another such organization. Also of significance was the work of Jim Wallis and the Sojourners community in Washington, DC.
Finally, Green notes that party voting was split almost equally among the two major parties in the 1970s. By 1984 the Republican voting percentage of Evangelicals was 74% and in 2000 it was 71%. By and large Evangelicals have become a reliable Republican constituency.
Green notes that both movement politics and quiescent politics have attractive features yet neither has ever accomplished much over the last century. Movement politics tends to build up considerable energy and enthusiasm at first but when it becomes clear there will be few short-term victories, support often wanes. The quiescent approach tends to lead toward an unhealthy apathy. That leaves regularized politics. It has the danger of getting caught up in power for power's sake and loosing Christian moorings. Green ends the essay with this observation: “There are no easy answers, only tough choices with real consequences.” (p. 32)