Magazine article The Christian Century

Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice

Magazine article The Christian Century

Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice

Article excerpt

Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice

By Brantley W. Gasaway

University of North Carolina Press, 336 pp., $29.95 paperback

In 1985 evangelical activists marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. As the demonstration began, a spokesperson declared, "We're showing that we are willing to pay the price, to sacrifice, to go to jail, if necessary, to draw attention to all the assaults on human life that are now so abundant." By the end of the protest, police had arrested nearly 250 marchers for civil disobedience.

To those who assumed that the reference to human life derived from a singular animus against abortion, the march's route seemed bizarre. Activists stopped first at the White House to pray for "an end to the arms race and for the poor, its primary victims." Outside the Soviet embassy they prayed for the people of Afghanistan, "whose country has been brutally invaded by another arrogant superpower." At the Supreme Court they protested the "barbaric practice" of the death penalty. Not until their final stop at the Department of Health and Human Services did marchers intercede for unborn children.

In his survey of theologically conservative but politically progressive evangelicalism, Brantley Gasaway astutely examines the rally's idiosyncratic platform. He contends that Peace Pentecost--and the broader evangelical left that carried it out--offered a coherent social agenda. Grounded in a "public theology of community," it stood in stark contrast to the pervasive individualism of midcentury evangelicalism. The prophetic Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine and the pastoral Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action contended that sin expresses itself in more complex ways than person-to-person racism, violence against the fetus, and pornography.

These evangelicals declared that injustice often takes a social shape. Racism, which Sojourners called "America's original sin," could be seen in systems such as apartheid and housing policies. Sexism was perpetuated through cultural language and male privilege. None of these structural critiques demanded a progressive theology. Instead, Wallis and Sider pled that a conservative hermeneutic of scripture demands social justice.

In Gasaway's telling, movement leaders sought sensible solutions to intractable problems. They declared same-sex marriage a civil right but a religious wrong. Sider sought to explain poverty as a result of both bad culture and excessive capitalism. Sojourners pursued a pro-life pragmatism that aimed to limit but not completely outlaw abortions, through government programs that offered contraception. Such centrist proposals, they hoped, could appeal to constituents on both the left and the right.

So why did the Moral Majority carry the day instead? The political homelessness of progressive evangelicals proved more decisive than the appeal of a third-way approach. In the wake of Peace Pentecost, Jerry Falwell declared that Wallis "is to evangelicalism what Adolf Hitler was to the Roman Catholic Church." Pro-choice women's groups vilified progressive evangelicals' pro-life position. Journalists just seemed confused. Attacked by secular and religious fundamentalists alike, progressive evangelicals were caught in a sharply divided party system not designed to consider third ways. …

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