June 25, 2008

Envisioning a New Evangelical Engagement

How should Christians engage the public square? This ever-timely question drew over 500 attendees to Princeton University on June 8-10 for Envision ’08: The Gospel, Politics, and the Future, a conference with dreams of a new justice movement and prophetic evangelical political engagement.

At Envision, the primary answer to the question of how Christians should engage the public square was negative: they should not engage in the manner of the religious right.

In the first plenary session on the history of evangelicals, Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, spoke of trying to “reclaim the term evangelical from the religious right” and challenged attendees to compare the Republican Party platform with the Sermon on the Mount.

Richard Cizik, Vice President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of evangelicals, also critiqued conservatives, referring to the Republican Party as “one party of which I’ve been a part . . . forgive me,” and stating that Christians need to broaden their political agenda to include issues like poverty, war, and global warming.

There is no question that the religious right can and ought to be critiqued. Too many Christians have ventured into the public square without a solid theological base, resulting in inconsistency and an injurious witness. During one panel response, Vincent Bacote, associate professor of theology at WheatonCollege, asked how those who believe in pre-millennial theology square that with public action. This is one of many important questions that thoughtful evangelicals need to discuss.

With participants from several Christian traditions with distinct views on how Christians should engage the public square, and conference sponsorship from six seminaries as well as other institutions of higher learning, Envision ’08 had the potential to further this theological conversation. This potential was never realized.

The plenary session focusing explicitly on theology was on the “theology of shalom,” presented by Lisa Sharon Harper, director of New York Faith and Justice. Harper presented an overarching picture of redemptive history: in the Garden of Eden there was complete harmony, the Fall broke those relationships, and Christians are now called to be shalom-makers for the Kingdom of God. But she never discussed how the Kingdom of God relates to the kingdoms of this world, or how in fact Christians should actually engage the public square.

In the next plenary session a theology of engaging the public square was not simply absent, the entire task of formulating orthodox theology was belittled. Obery Hendricks, Jr., professor of biblical interpretation at New York Theological Seminary, speaking about his book The Politics of Jesus, faulted conservative evangelicals for being too concerned with orthodoxy and not interested enough in orthopraxy. He said, “We need to be students not of orthodoxy, but students of righteousness, justice, and steadfast love.”

Outside of the parameters of historical orthodoxy, what do those words mean? What are righteousness, justice, and love? How do we practice them? The only way Christians can get thorough answers is to dig deeply into the Bible and the Christian tradition, but Hendricks discouraged that by calling into question the integrity of the Bible itself. Jesus and Paul, he asserted, are in fundamental disagreement: Jesus talked about the poor, while Paul talked about sinners. Jesus went up against the Roman Empire and was crucified for it, while Paul taught in Romans 13 that Christians need to submit to the governing authorities who are established by God. Christians need to choose whom they are going to follow, Jesus or Paul. Not surprisingly, Hendricks encouraged people to choose Jesus. Also not surprisingly, the politics of Jesus looked a lot like American liberal politics. When Jesus and Paul are in conflict, Hendricks’s views are supposed to win the day

Hendricks also explained that when Christians focus too much on doctrine it leads them to denigrate people of other religions. He said that when Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me,” he was only speaking to his own disciples, not people from other cultures or other religions. These are the “other sheep that are not of this sheep pen” Jesus mentioned in John 10. This statement was especially disconcerting because only moments earlier Hendricks had encouraged Christians to truly make disciples, instead of just converts. Without sound doctrine about Christian life and practice, it is unclear why anyone should be converted or what these disciples are supposed to learn.

Lack of clarity is helpful when Christians want to pursue their own agendas. Bowie Snodgrass, co-founder of a house church in Manhattan called Transmission, used John 14:5 to frame her presentation on the emerging church. The verse reads, “Thomas said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’” Snodgrass interpreted the verse to emphasize her uncertainties in following Jesus, such as whether Jesus really is the only way to God. In the midst of these speculations she never referred to Jesus’ answer to Thomas’s question in John 14:6, “no one comes to the Father except through me,” stated perhaps too forthrightly for her comfort.

The day after the conference, the organizers issued a statement titled “Envision the Future: A Declaration on the Common Good.” This statement emphasizes Envision’s commitment to social justice issues and its contrast to other Christians in politics: “In recent times, some have used Christianity to divide us from one another and demonize others. They have placed Christianity on the side of the powerful against the powerless. Envision inaugurates a new relation between our faith and our politics. In a spirit of humility and hospitality, we seek to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God and each other.”

The statement sounds lofty, but again the Envision conference gave no hint of a theological framework to back up this claim of “a new relation between our faith and our politics.” During the conference, the religious right was consistently denigrated, but there were few reasons to hope that Envision and movements like it will avoid becoming the religious left, which, rather than broadening the evangelical political agenda, will merely attempt to shift it from conservative to liberal.

There was much talk about being a “prophetic” voice to people in power, but if Christians are not solidly planted in historic theology they will witness only to their personal political agendas. Instead of being a true Christian witness, speaking from a holistic biblical theology, Envision sets up another partisan group, divisive towards other Christians (all the while claiming to be inclusive) and theologically feeble. That is, Envision is little more than another manifestation of the theological and political liberalism that has been choking the life out of the Protestant mainline for decades.

Shane Claiborne, author and a founding member of the Simple Way Community in Philadelphia who spoke from an Anabaptist perspective, reminded conference attendees that if Christians are dealing with bad theology, the solution is not no theology. The solution is good theology. The truth of this statement became clear at Envision ’08. The lack of concern for theology led to bad theology, leaving only nice sounding but empty words about justice and peace to guide Envision attendees into the public square.


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