Evangelical United Methodist Historian, IRD Board Member Urges Non-Partisan Christian Social Engagement

on January 22, 2014

American Evangelical Christianity needs to learn from the mistakes of its past to approach socio-political issues in ways that are more humble, faithful, non-partisan, distinctly Christian, and unifying for the body of Christ.

That was the message offered by the Rev. Dr. Ken Collins in a panel discussion of his 2012 book, Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration (InterVarsity Press, 299 pages), at last November’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR).

Collins, Professor Historical Theology and Wesley Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, serves as both a board member of IRD and an advisory board member of IRD’s UMAction program. The AAR is the main professional association of religious studies professors. This panel was organized by the Evangelical Studies Group and presided over by Paul Barton of the Seminary of the Southwest.

Collins explained that in the twentieth century, after suffering a rather huge loss of the cultural power they had enjoyed in the nineteenth century, American evangelicals turned towards seeking political power. Two key landmarks were the 1973 founding of the left-leaning Evangelicals for Social Action and the 1979 formation of the right-leaning Moral Majority.

On the conservative side, Collins summarized that “people like James Dobson thought if they could just get enough political power, they could change the culture.” However, “political power does not necessarily translate into cultural power.” To become “movers and shakers,” Collins stressed the importance of evangelicals focusing their social efforts on persuasion.

Collins faulted both the Evangelical Left and Evangelical Right for instead seeking to rely too heavily on the state to advance their social ideals. He lamented how for both camps, “a partisan political ideology at times edged out the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” He further lamented how the Evangelical Left itself splintered over issues of race, gender, and theology.

Collins made clear that it is “not wrong to have political opinions” or favored political ideologies, since, after all, “we all have them.” But he stressed the importance of being careful and humble in “how we hold them.”

Two positive Christian examples of humble yet vigorous Christian social engagement were the late Lutheran-turned-Catholic Richard John Neuhaus (who Collins praised for his “Religion and Democracy” essay which was the founding document for IRD) and civil-rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. (who, Collins noted, differed from Social-Gospel pioneer Walter Rauschenbusch by seeing the dangers of identifying the Christian church too closely with a particular political agenda).

Echoing Neuhaus, Collins declared that the church must not be a subservient instrument for the democratic political order, but rather that the churches themselves constitute the “first things” of importance in the world. Collins also praised King for developing a “sophisticated distinction between valid and invalid laws” and between “moral and legal,” through which he argued that Jim Crow laws were invalid on the basis of their fundamental conflict with natural law and natural human rights.

One of the panelists responding to the book was Luke Bretherton, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School. He praised the book for the “admirable and irenic” nature in which it urged “freeing evangelicalism from partisan politics.” And he indicated his agreement with Collins in calling for evangelical political engagement to be more humble, both recognizing the responsibility to seek positive political change and each individual’s need for personal improvement.

However, Bretherton “disagreed quite sharply” with what he characterized as Collins’s support for free market, anti-Keynesian economics. While broadly affirming Collins’s concern about tyrannical government, Bretherton pushed back by arguing that there was a need for more “economic democracy” and that significant state power was important for lessening “the deleterious effects of rapacious capitalism.” He further argued that it was capitalism, not the revolution in cultural mores of the 1960s, which was “the true acid eroding family values.”

Furthermore, the Duke ethicist argued that his Asbury colleague’s promotion of “a nonpartisan Jesus” was unsustainable, since “Jesus is a political figure, among other things,” and “any attempt to depoliticize Jesus is Gnostic.” Therefore, Bretherton asserted that the problem was “not that we have overly politicized Jesus, but that we haven’t fully wrestled with Jesus’ political implications.”

Collins countered that he was not arguing “for a de-politicized Jesus,” but rather for humility and “recognition of our own imperfections” as evangelicals come to differing political conclusions in seeking to apply their faith to the political arena. As a foil, he cited Jim Wallis not-so-humbly entitling his 2005 collection of his personal political opinions God’s Politics rather than Jim Wallis’s Politics. While issues of justice in society are proper objects of Christian concern, Collins stressed that the church must approach such issues differently, since “we have a different narrative than the world” has, and our commonality in Christ is more fundamental than our important political differences.

Collins did express openness to some of Bretherton’s economics-based criticisms, admitting that his own focus was more on culture. Collins also noted his personal differences with libertarianism and neo-liberalism. But he rejected Bretherton’s blaming capitalism rather than the 1960s for eroding family values as “almost neo-Marxist, materialist determinism” (an evaluation which Bretherton in turn rejected). Collins warned against ignoring the negative impact of such cultural developments as the sexual revolution, the rise in out-of-wedlock births, no-fault divorce, and the redefinition of marriage.

Also critiquing the book from a more “partisan,” left-of-center political perspective was panelist Roger Olson, the Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics of Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University.

Olson agreed with the book’s basic argument that “the public voice of the church must not be reduced to politics.”

However, the Baptist scholar rejected Collins’s suggestion that the church should be characterized by a wide openness to individuals with a variety of political beliefs. Olson noted that similar arguments were previously used by those urging churches against endorsing the abolitionist, civil-rights, and anti-Apartheid causes. He rhetorically asked if there were similarly morally urgent issues today. He made clear his position that the suffering caused by poverty was so great that it similarly demanded that the church thrust itself in a unified way into lobbying for very specific political agendas to address the widely-agreed upon goal of alleviating poverty, even if such agendas were seen as controversial or politically partisan.

Olson shared the lament over American evangelicalism becoming so fragmented and politicized. But, contra Collins, Olson asserted that it was unfair to blame the Evangelical Left alongside the Evangelical Right, and expressed deep sympathies with the latter. Olson insisted that the always-weaker Evangelical Left was much less “ideological” and was never as aligned with the Democratic Party as the Christian Right has been with the GOP. He cited an incident in which Jim Wallis told a reporter that he saw Jerry Falwell as a fellow Christian with whom he had some differences of opinion, while the ever-quotable Rev. Falwell told the same reporter that Wallis was “to evangelicalism what Adolf Hitler was to the Roman Catholic Church.” The Baylor professor speculated that Collins may have read the Evangelical Left through his experience as an evangelical United Methodist feeling “burned” by the “genuinely socialist, often anti-American” Mainline Left. But Olson claimed that it was inaccurate to place Evangelical Left figures like Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, and Jim Wallis in a similarly extreme camp. (Sider and McLaren are both affiliated with Wallis’s Sojourners magazine as contributing editors.)

Collins responded by insisting that there were problems on both sides. But with Roger Olson, he faulted the late Rev. Falwell for failing to “recognize his evangelical brother, Jim Wallis.”

Olson’s response was a bit confusing on several counts. With the label, “Christian Right,” did he mean only a few high-profile, clearly partisan leaders known for their intemperate quotes? Or was Olson also talking about people who have a wide range of economic and foreign-policy views but whose are often labeled “Christian Right” because their voting is at least partially influenced by traditional Christian values on pro-life and marriage-related concerns? It was not clear.

While he insisted on differentiating the Evangelical Left from the Mainline Left, one wonders what stances of the latter qualify as socialist and anti-American (in Olson’s judgment) but are not also found in the pages of Sojourners.

The only strong, sustained criticisms I recall seeing of Democratic politicians from Wallis/Sojourners have been from the left (e.g., attacking insufficiently dovish foreign policies). Furthermore, the Evangelical Left repeatedly goes out of its way to deflect opposition to liberal Democratic policies related to abortion and sexual morality, with some even changing their own theology to better conform to their Party. So I asked Olson during the question-and-answer time if it would be more accurate to say that the Religious Left is not closely aligned with the Democratic Party but with the left wing of the Democratic Party. Olson emphasized that he was talking only about the Evangelical wing of the Religious Left, and claimed that Sojourners had broken ranks with the Democratic Party on abortion.

Documenting the liberalism of Sojourners on abortion would take a separate article. But Sojourners has at times been very one-sidedly critical of pro-lifers, while I am not aware of a single instance in the last several years of Sojourners either working in a sustained way alongside major pro-life groups to promote even moderate, incrementalist abortion-limiting policies or of Sojourners using any of its clout within the left wing of mainline Protestant denominations (from which so much of its support base comes) to support efforts to reform their churches’ official abortion-endorsing positions in a more pro-life direction.

Furthermore, while some other Evangelical Left figures have occasionally broken from their Party on issues of life, marriage, or religious liberty, one would be extremely hard-pressed to cite many instances of the Evangelical Left not being in absolute “lockstep” (to use Olson’s word) with the left wing of the Democratic Party on all other issues.

On the other hand, Olson seemed to be arguing for a moral imperative of evangelical commitment to very particular political solutions to poverty. While it is widely agreed that poverty should be tackled, different ideas for the best solutions inevitably flow from different political ideologies. But, like Bretherton, Olson appeared to be arguing for one particular ideology-based, even potentially partisan, set of solutions as uniquely acceptable for Christians. At least Bretherton did not incongruously combine this stance by faulting others for being “partisan” or “ideological.”

Also responding was Joy Moore, Associate Dean for African American Church Studies and Assistant Professor of Preaching at Fuller Seminary, and an ordained United Methodist minister. She noted that with his wide-ranging critiques, Collins “puts himself in the crosshairs of just about everybody.” Reviewing some of the book’s key themes, Moore observed that Americans today “seek good without God,” which, she noted, was named by the biblical prophets as idolatry. She asked a number of thought-provoking rhetorical questions, such as urging evangelicals to consider how to remain distinct and be a constructive influence in a society in which we are not dominant.

Her main charges against the book were sins of omission. Moore argued that the volume paid insufficient attention to unified moments in modern American evangelical social engagement, evangelical unity and the place of women. While appreciating for Collins’s addressing racial issues broadly and Martin Luther King, Jr. specifically, she lamented the book’s largely overlooking African-American evangelicals.

Collins responded that “African Americans are key movers and shakers” in his book. However, aside from exceptions like the National Black Evangelical Association, for a number of reasons, “the majority of theologically conservative black Christians reject the ‘evangelical’” label, instead preferring “Bible-believing.” Thus, he explained that his focus on other American evangelicals was done “out of respect for African-American Christians” and not wanting to “impose a label on them that they reject.”

  1. Comment by cleareyedtruthmeister on January 22, 2014 at 11:52 am

    In many ways the exchange between Collins (who appears moderate to conservative) and the left-leaning profs is a microcosm of what’s been happening in the culture for decades, with the profs reflecting left-leaning views that have become artificially amplified and entrenched owing to media/academic/special interest activism.

    As a result, the evangelical center has been misidentified as further left than actual Scripture/historical Christianity puts it (the larger point being, of course, that it’s restrictive, even condescending, to apply ANY political labels…but that’s were we find ourselves in the current climate).

    Many more people on the religious left–I speak not just as an observer but from personal experience–see Christianity as largely if not exclusively a political calling. Regardless, whether it’s Jerry Falwell (who, as compared to liberal pastors, was disproportionately called on his partisanship by the media) or Jim Wallis, such understandings betray a objective and balanced understanding of the gospel.

    While Collins would be described as moderate to left-leaning 40 years ago, today he is tagged as conservative by folks like Bretherton, whose unbalanced, misguided criticism of things like capitalism (including, most incredibly, his assertion that it is primarily reponsible for the breakdown in contemporary cultural mores) has become a broken record played incessantly by the religious left.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.