29 October 2007

the evangelical crackup

Reporter David D. Kirkpatrick writes about "The Evangelical Crackup" in yesterday's New York Times.

The "crackup" here refers to the waning hegemony of right-wing conservative politics among evangelicals, particularly among younger voters, so that evangelicalism no longer represents, in the words of Marvin Olasky, "the Republican Party at prayer".

One of the more disturbing elements of the article, to my mind, was the way in which some evangelical leaders appear to equate a "leftward drift" on some political issues with a declension from theological orthodoxy.

According to the article, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, sees these political shifts as a move away from orthodox evangelical theology, replaying the early 20th century split between evangelicals and the liberal mainline. Even David Wells, who I thought would be a more clear thinker, is quoted as saying that these political shifts represent a "capitulation" to the broader culture, associating that with a decline of the mainline liberals.

I continue to be surprised by the way in which many evangelicals are still fighting theological "liberalism" as the primary enemy, so that every shift away from the cultural trappings of evangelicalism is seen as a shift towards such liberalism - without always recognizing to what degree evangelicalism's own cultural trappings are already a "capitulation."

Moreover, as far as I can discern from the article and my own experience and exposure to younger evangelicals, most evangelical Christians have not really moved much politically on issues such as abortion, use of embryonic stem cells, euthanasia, gay marriage, and so on. Rather, they have raised questions and shifted on issues such as environmental stewardship, warfare, economic policies, global poverty, HIV/AIDS, and so forth.

In these respects, it seems to me that some evangelicals are actually often moving closer to the historic social teaching of the Christian church, particularly in its contemporary application in orthodox varieties of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Neo-Calvinism, and so forth. If so, then perhaps these political shifts among evangelicals are more a matter of Christian ressourcement and retrieval than cultural capitulation.

I doubt there will ever be enough political unanimity and willpower among American evangelicals to create a viable political alternative - even if they were allied with Roman Catholics - but I would certainly welcome a wider array of live options beyond the Republicans and Democrats, perhaps even a party like the European-style Christian Democrats.