It is interesting to me, and often exasperating, that contemporary evangelicals are generally perceived by others as being ultraconservative reactionaries, determined to impede or prevent social progress. It is an unfortunate stereotype perpetuated mainly by those on the far right and the far left who profit from it. As I’ve noted on this blog before, evangelicals are a politically diverse lot, and younger evangelicals rank their concerns for peace, environmental protection and social justice as highly as they do their concerns over abortion, for example.
But today I just felt like bringing a little history to the discussion, particularly for the benefit of those who see evangelicals as hindrances to progress, rather than instruments of it.
The “separation of church and state” comes up often in this discussion. Interestingly that term is not in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. It comes, instead, from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote years after our republic had been founded. He was writing to representatives of a persecuted religious minority. That group, which had splintered from the Anglican church, was the victim of prejudice and intolerance. Marriages performed by their ministers weren’t recognized as valid, and folks married by them were sometimes prosecuted for adultery. Members of this group were forced to pay taxes to support the Anglican church. They were regarded by the majority religious establishment as misguided at best, and fanatical at worst. They were Baptists.
Over time, of course, Baptists and Methodists came to be predominant denominations in America. But, particularly with Baptists, their past persecution made them very suspicious of politics in the pulpit, and they insisted on strictly separating the two. This did not mean, of course, that they didn’t engage society in an attempt to reform it. They did, but not from the pulpit.
The progressive social movement of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century was spearheaded by evangelicals, and Baptists particularly. Using Biblical values, they argued for a “social gospel,” and, employing it, led the charge in obtaining labor reform, ending child labor, imposing limitations on the work week (including a day off for rest), championing defense of the poor, prison reform, mental health reform, opposing lynching and racial injustice, promoting temperance, supporting labor unions and opposing war. To the modern mind, temperance stands out in that list. But in those days progressives saw alcohol abuse as destructive of the family, leading to abuse of wives and children, idleness, poverty, and disease. Opposition to alcohol was a progressive position, because progressives believed that strengthening families and protecting the weak was the best way to improve society. The other key progressive positions remain progressive positions today.
Conservatives generally were in the Episcopal or mainline denominations. Evangelicals were champions of the working class. And it was fundamental to their beliefs that they must try to make the world a better, more just place to live.
Dr. King and the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference openly preached politics from the pulpit, and that bothered many of his Baptist colleagues, whose traditions permitted activism, but only outside the church walls. He answered their arguments brilliantly in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (well worth a read). And evangelicals spearheaded the American civil rights movement.
More recently, of course, have come things like the Moral Majority and Focus on Families. While the emphasis of those organizations on opposition to abortion and support of traditional marriage and “family values” would place them solidly within the evangelical progressive tradition, promoting their agenda from the pulpit, and having it morph into advocacy of things like lower capital gains taxes and warmongering, would not. Sadly, these organizations and others like them became vehicles through which certain famous televangelists could lead their flocks to the Republican party, where they are manipulated for votes every few years, then ignored and marginalized until the next election. The important fact is that these organizations do not speak for evangelicals generally, nor have they ever. The parts of their platform that are not grounded in love and social justice will fade away, while those that are will remain in the forefront of evangelical political thinking long after those organizations are gone.
Now none of this means that evangelicals today have to take any particular political position, or be a part of any political party. I don’t accept much of what passes for “progressive” thought these days, for example.
But I deny that we have to cede the ground of true “progressivism” to those who would have us believe there is no place for people of faith there.