The New Evangelical Social Engagement

By Wacker, Grant | The Christian Century, April 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

The New Evangelical Social Engagement


Wacker, Grant, The Christian Century


The New Evangelical Social Engagement

Edited by Brian Steensland and Philip Goff

Oxford University Press, 336 pp., $29.95 paperback

Recently an academic friend whose views and worship practices meet all the usual criteria of evangelical told me he no longer owns the label. When I asked why, he answered simply, "When I tell people I am an evangelical, they automatically assume I want America to bomb Guatemala."

This valuable anthology addresses a topic that usually flies under the media's radar: "new" evangelicals' progressive social engagement in the past quarter century. Other works, such as David R. Swartz's Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, Brantley W. Gasaway's Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, and Heather Curtis's forthcoming Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid, tread some of this ground. The New Evangelical Social Engagement, edited by distinguished scholars of American religion at Indiana University/Purdue University, amplifies these works with deeply researched historical and sociological case studies.

The chapters document the impressive range of new evangelicals' efforts. Their endeavors include sustained attention to war, disease, racism, patriarchy, homelessness, hunger, corruption, poverty, illiteracy, environment, urban renewal, economic development, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, religious repression, and abortion on demand. In an elegantly crafted introduction, the editors place that work in historical context. The seeds of new evangelicals' concerns appeared in 18th-century revivals, germinated in antebellum reform societies, flowered in midcentury abolitionism, and fully bloomed in perfectionistic crusades against many social abuses in the closing years of the 19th century. Though evangelicals never totally abandoned social reform, the middle decades of the 20th century saw fewer such efforts and occasionally sharp criticism of them. Social reform purportedly distracted from the church's primary job of spreading the gospel.

By the 1970s, however, a small but vocal contingent of evangelicals were trying to reverse that trend and return the movement to the expansive social vision of the 19th century. Fifty leaders produced the landmark Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern in 1973. It addressed not only personal and social suffering but also the structural conditions that foster it. These voices remained through the 1980s and 1990s, but the cacophony of the religious right and the ensuing culture wars drowned them out, especially in the ears of the mainstream media. By the 1990s and 2000s, though, a new breed of evangelicals had joined the chorus. Insisting that authentic Christian faith must look out as well as up, these activists unhesitatingly coupled personal salvation with social justice. Though they were preponderantly young, white, urban, and highly educated, they found themselves united less by demographics, region, or partisan political affiliation than by resistance to the religious right.

The contributors to this volume offer focused descriptions and analyses of different aspects of this new--or at least newish--evangelical social witness. James S. Bielo describes emerging evangelicals' resistance to epistemic modernism, megachurches, and church growth ideologies, in favor of simplicity, community, prayer, study, work, service, hospitality, justice, holiness, and celebration--all ideally centered in the local community. The fruits of collaboration mark the studies by John Schmalzbauer and Omri Elisha. Schmalzbauer focuses on the 2006 national meeting of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, where the prefix multi seemed the new byword: multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual, and multinational. Using Mike Huckabee's 2012 quip "We are all Catholics now" as a springboard, Elisha shows how new evangelicals drew inspiration from progressive Catholics, who share many of their concerns. …

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