The ‘evangelical center’

By Aaron Weaver

Greg Warner of the Associated Baptist Press has a published the first installment of a two-part series that examines whether an “evangelical center” will emerge to rival the waning Christian Right.

Relying mostly on quotes from Baptist theologian Roger Olson, Baptist ethicist David Gushee and Anabaptist activist/author Jim Wallis, Warner’s piece is indeed quite interesting. Check it out first.

Here’s a snippet:

(ABP) — If the Religious Right is losing its influence, as many pundits predict, will it be replaced by the “other” evangelicals — a center-and-left coalition with a broader social agenda and a kinder, gentler brand of cultural engagement?

Advocates say centrist evangelicals are a bona fide constituency that is re-emerging after three decades spent underground — or at least ignored by the media and society at large. Though these other evangelicals have no dominant spokespersons and no representative organization, at least not yet, they say they are every bit as worthy of the “evangelical” label as their counterparts on the right — and every bit as numerous.

In fact, Christians can “be more evangelical by being less conservative,” argues Baptist theologian and author Roger Olson. And he’s written a book to tell them how.

“Evangelicals are leaving the Religious Right in droves!” added Christian activist Jim Wallis, for three decades the social conscience of the evangelical left. “This evangelical center is getting so big.”

Ok, so what exactly is an evangelical centrist?

I’m not sure. Greg Warner doesn’t exactly define that term.

David Gushee (whom Warner defines as a centrist Baptist) would seem to define an evangelical centrist as a person who is “fed up with the right’s ‘slash and burn’ approach.” You know, folks from my generation – the guys and gals who “are turned off to the culture war mentality and all the anger” according to Gushee. Or perhaps an evangelical centrist is simply a evangelical with a social agenda that reaches beyond abortion and homosexuality? You know, evangelicals who care about poverty, war and peace, immigration reform, torture, Africa and Creation Care.

Terms like “centrist” and especially “progressive” are extremely problematic. Later in this article, Warner uses the term “progressive” to describe theologian Robert Olson’s employer Baylor University. So, what does progressive in this context mean exactly? I go to Baylor. I like Baylor. But what makes Baylor “progressive”? I doubt any member of the Board of Regents or Administrator at Baylor University would use the tag “progressive” to describe Baylor. Defining terms is a difficult task indeed but it’s a task which must be accomplished.

I digress ….

Jeff Sharlet is a regular contributor to magazines like Harper’s and Rolling Stone and for the past few years has served as the editor of The Revealer of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. In Jeff’s most recent column, he argues that conservative evangelicalism is neither dead nor moving to the center.

Jeff also offers some great advice for journalists on the “God Beat.” He writes:

Christian conservatism is neither dead, as widely reported by the secular press, nor becoming more “moderate.” Rather, many strands of Christian conservative thinking are broadening to encompass concerns long relegated to the back burner. This broadening makes the vision no less conservative, but rather differently conservative. It is, however, less predictable, less partisan, and in the terms of discussion allowed by establishment media, that makes it less influential. That may well be true according to the narratives of campaign strategists, but the loss of influence at the ballot box could easily translate into a greater influence on what evangelical intellectuals are fond of calling “the culture,” by which they mean a concept of the public sphere from which they feel excluded. They recognize that any American sphere that doesn’t include them is a rather small bubble, indeed. The bullies among them want to muscle in and take it over. The most interesting activists among them want to pop it.

So how do we measure their influence? I have no idea. In the establishment press, you’re free to reject conventional wisdom if you have a new paradigm to propose. I don’t. My proposal is more modest: an end to paradigms. Instead, let’s gather data. Not survey responses but stories, the kind that don’t necessarily have morals, that don’t always come to a “point.” Just like this first column for ReligionDispatches, a manifesto for messiness in writing about religion, politics, and media. Journalists, editors, scholars, my comrades on the God beat: Please, don’t tidy up the narrative of religion in America to conform to the demands of election season op-ed pages. Reveal it for what you, better than any individual believer or unbeliever, know it to be: wildly pluralistic, profoundly unstable, ingeniously conformist, weird, funny, tender, banal, and infused with wit, gloriously difficult to define.

Christian conservatives = no less conservative but rather differently conservative. That’s an analysis that I can buy.

I’m glad these “evangelical centrists” like Rick Warren are less partisan and have embraced a broader social agenda. I’m glad that they don’t blame the Jews, the Lesbians, the Pagans, and everyone else for 9/11. Kudos to them. But at the end of the day, how many Rick Warren types are going to vote for a Pro-Choice, Pro-Gay Rights Democrat in November? Abortion and homosexuality have been the bread-and-butter issues of the Religious Right for a reason – they sell. Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas represent much of what Christian conservatives believe to be wrong with America.

What’s changed? So, maybe some “evangelical centrists” have bought Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth hook, line, and sinker. Great. But will the interest of Christian conservatives in a plethora of social issues outweigh their commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade and rolling back gay rights when confronted with the ballot box in November? I have my doubts.

Over at the Talking Points Memo Cafe, Richard Parker asks how many of these new moderate or “compassionate evangelicals” like Rick Warren actually believe that both the Government and the Church are part of the solution?
Apparently, Warren does not.

Parker compares the “new evangelicalism” of “centrists” like Warren, Czik and others to the shift that white evangelicals went through in the 1950s, when a younger generation of evangelicals such as Billy Graham were thought to foreshadow “the death of an older conservative and often vitriolic fundamentalism, that had once been openly anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and unapologetically racist.” But as Parker points out, Billy G. wasn’t exactly progressive. He never publicly supported Dr. King or condemned George Wallace in Alabama. Billy kept quiet in the aftermath of Selma where a young John Lewis had his head repeatedly bashed with a billy-club. Parker writes:

While that was then and this is now, consider the current claims made for a kinder, gentler “compassionate evangelicalism” today. What, for example, exactly are these Great Awakeners ready to do about the problems of the environment and global poverty? Have Richard Cizik and the NAE been calling for government-mandated fuel efficiency standards or higher gasoline taxes or required production of hybrid vehicles? Has Rick Warren, who has “embraced” the problem of global poverty, told us how he’s going to solve it?

He has apparently decided how he’s not going to solve it. Here’s Warren two weeks ago rebuking a conservative columnist who called Warren a “statist like Jim Wallis” (Wallis-because he actually votes for Democrats, is married to an Anglican priest, and was raised in a Northern evangelical denomination-is still treated like a leper by the most of his ostensibly “new evangelical” colleagues):

“Actually, I completely disagree with Jim Wallis’s big government approach to poverty,” Warren wrote. “The answer is not aid, but trade, not subsidies but freer markets, not wealth redistribution but wealth creation. not the government but local congregations. Saddleback’s P.E.A.C.E. plan is the exact opposite of outdated and ineffective liberal social government programs that have failed.

“We believe the answer is the Church, not bigger government.”

And Parker concludes:

Even the much-vaunted rise of young evangelicals’ disillusionment with the GOP-according to Pew’s recent polls-turns out to be anything but a sharp turn away from conservatism. Young evangelicals began the Bush years as stronger GOP supporters than their parents, according to Pew; all evangelicals have declined in their support of Bush-but consistently are much more supportive than the rest of the country; young evangelicals are in greater numbers telling pollsters that they’re independent that Republican—but almost none are moving to become Democrats or call themselves liberal. And most evangelicals, young and old, remain active supporters of the death penalty, opposed to abortion, and while more “concerned” about poverty, AIDs and the like than in the past, are remarkably unclear on what exactly should be done to solve those problems.

In conclusion, I prefer to take the Let’s Wait and See approach of Bill Leonard, dead of Wake Forest University Divinity School. I won’t be foolish like Jim Wallis and proclaim that the Religious Right is dead or that we’re living in a post-Religious Right era. And I won’t claim that this “new evangelicalism,” whose members Greg Warner dubs as “evangelical centrists,” are truly less conservative than the older generation. A lack of hate-mongering does not make one a “centrist” or a “moderate” or a “progressive.”

So, let’s “wait and see.”

But in the meantime, perhaps we should determine what an “evangelical centrist” actually is, who is included in this category, and how this “middle way” is in practice “new” or “transformative”?

Cross-posted from here.


About Mark Kelly

Jesus follower, Bible reader, husband/father/son/brother/uncle, rider, hiker, snapshooter
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