Thursday, February 06, 2014

Worthen: Democratic Evangelicals (8)

Chapter 8 of Molly Worthen's, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Reviews of previous chapters include:

Chapter 1 (Birth of Neo-Evangelicalism)
Chapter 2 (Evangelicals on the Edges)
Chapter 3 (The Strivings of Christianity Today)
Chapter 4 (Mennonites and Nazarenes in the 50s)
Chapter 5 (The Drive to Accreditation)
Chapter 6 (The Church Growth Movement)
Chapter 7 (The Canterbury Trail)

Now chapter 8, "The Gospel of Liberation"

This chapter deals with the awkward evangelicals of the 60s, 70s, and 80s who didn't fit the political mould of the central neo-evangelicals. It is no surprise that Wesleyans and Anabaptists feature strongly in this chapter, because strong streams of our tradition stand in tension with the political sensibilities of other evangelicals.

1. For example, the Wesleyan tradition was an abolitionist movement in the early 1800s (the equivalent today of being pro-immigration reform, pro-civil rights, etc). Meanwhile, social action to the NAE in the 60s meant anti-communism, anti-Roman Catholic, anti-IRS taxing of ministers, stopping alcohol on airplanes, and anti-Hollywood. So Nazarenes like Timothy Smith pointed out that evangelicals were "social progressives" long before liberal Protestant theology.

The problem with the social gospel, as I've often said, was not that it wanted to help the poor--that's straight Bible. The problem was that it no longer believed Jesus was God.

2. This chapter also introduced us to Jim Wallis, Sojourners, and Ron Sider. They are evangelicals in the older sense, even though they support what are often thought of as "liberal" causes.

3. Again, churches in the Wesleyan tradition have been supporting women's rights since before Protestant liberalism even existed. It ordained women in the 1800s, almost a century even before the United Methodist Church did. Many in the Wesleyan tradition thus have seen no contradiction between being a "feminist" and being a Wesleyan.

4. "Evangelicals for McGovern"  McGovern was the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister and a Democratic candidate for president. This was before the issue of abortion had become what it is today. This was before Roe vs. Wade. "Historian David Swartz has suggested that as late as the mid-1970s, the political prospects of the evangelical Left seemed nearly as bright as those of their peers on the Right. Evangelicals' ambivalent opinions on social policy, gender equality, and abortion rights had not yet hardened into the slogans of the Moral Majority" (191).

I think this is an important point. The political positions of conservative Christians today seem clearer than they were in the year 1970. We do not have a good memory of the period when these positions were hardening. And I should throw in here that memory studies show that the human brain infects earlier memories with later ones. That is to say, it is predictable that some of those who lived through this period will remember themselves having a firmer opinion on abortion in 1970 than they actually did at the time.

Worthen is spot on with this analysis--the right had a better "grand narrative." That is to say, the narrative of American moral deterioration has had staying power in a Christian premillennial culture that expects things to get worse and worse before Christ's return.

5. A strain of scholars continued to engage Europe. People like George Ladd, Geoffrey Bromiley, Paul Jewett engaged the thinking of people like Karl Barth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a hero.

There was also an Anabaptist renaissance during the Vietnam War. Pacifism was anathema during WW2, but the Vietnam War was a different story. Stanley Hauerwas became part of the mix, along with John Howard Yoder.

1 comment:

Pastor Bob said...

I served in the Army in the Vietnam era, we had Conscientious objectors who served but would not fight, I believe they were Anabaptist. This is an interesting post, thank you.