Religious Left – A Conversation with Brantley W. Gasaway

GasawayBrantley W. Gasaway is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University. His book, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, was published last fall by University of North Carolina Press. In it, Gasaway situates Progressive Evangelicalism primarily within the past four decades, assessing its influence on a variety of contemporary issues.

ECM: 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?

BWG: 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.

ECM: 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?

BWG: 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.

Read the whole thing at Religion and Politics.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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