Sunday, July 22, 2012

Craig Keener and the Evangelical Left

Craig Keener:
Public reports usually focus on the majority of evangelicals recently affiliated with the religious right. We generally hear little, however, about the third of evangelicals who lean in the other direction (except for a few well-known figures such as Tony Campolo or Jim Wallis). Likewise, many do not realize that evangelicals have never been a permanent constituency of the right: through most of their history, most evangelicals have been politically varied and unpredictable. President Obama and other Democrats who have tried to reach out to evangelicals, therefore, act strategically, even though it will undoubtedly take time for major shifts of political affiliation to occur. 

The association of evangelicals with the political right is recent, not characteristic of the evangelical heritage. Indeed, even the emphasis on separation of church and state in the West arose especially among Anabaptists who faced persecution for dissenting from the state churches. From the late 18th century on, social justice was a defining characteristic of evangelical faith, and the abolition of the slave trade, and ultimately slavery itself, became the leading evangelical social agenda. William Wilberforce and his allies achieved this outcome fairly peacefully in the British Empire. Many evangelicals worked for abolitionism in the United States as well, though the issue ultimately divided this country and its churches, often along geographic lines, and culminated in a civil war. After the war, those evangelicals who had supported abolition remained in the forefront of working for justice among the poor.

What happened to evangelical social concern? In the early 20th century the modernist-fundamentalist controversy polarized many churches. "Modernists" argued for accommodating modern knowledge and "fundamentalists" (not initially a pejorative term) argued for maintaining what they saw as the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Although the spectrum of Christian opinion was actually much more diverse (for example, most African-American churches never felt part of either camp), extreme voices often polarized their constituencies. As characterized by their opponents, these voices either abandoned historic Christian doctrines or rejected modern knowledge. (Such dismissive stereotypes persist today, most frequently as unfair caricatures.)
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