A New Engagement: Evangelical Political Thought, 1966-1976
Robert Booth Fowler. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982. 298 pages.
Evangelicals came of age in American political and cultural life in the 1970s. The election of Jimmy Carter, an avowed evangelical, as much as any single event pointed to the ascendancy of Evangelicals into the centers of power. This book explores the political and social ideas of prominent evangelical movements and leaders during the preceding decade. The central argument is that evangelicalism underwent an inner change during the decade that it stepped from the shadows of American life into the center stage.
It is a change that is best described by a growing concern for social and political issues and a growing pluralism as to how Evangelicals are to understand their relationship to the social/political order and how to interpret the Biblical materials on social/economic/political issues.
Three broad categories of political attitudes are suggested: traditional evangelicalism (sometimes referred to as conservative or mainstream) that includes the likes of Billy Graham, Francis Schaeffer and Christianity Today; moderate-reform oriented evangelicalism that embraces people like Carl F.H. Henry and Mark Hatfield and the Church of the Savior; and radical evangelicalism that is best observed in periodicals like The Other Side and Sojourners. This mapping is hardly new.
Fowler’s contribution is a careful and nuanced analysis of the varying evangelical sub-groupings and the differing positions on a series of issues. Attitudes on social (race, hunger, injustice); sexual (abortion, pornography); and ideological (marxism, capitalism, liberationism) issues are explored. Fowler is furthermore careful to distinguish between these three evangelical sub-groups and a noisy political fundamentalism on the right. Part of the irony of the conservative religious movement’s embrace of politics has been that it was led by those who earlier most despised any kind of social/political involvement (fundamentalists). Their extremism has in part required thoughtful evangelicals to a clearer articulation of a political theology.
Fowler’s conclusion that evangelical pluralism on political issues is here to stay is surely right. While there will always be a diversity of perspectives, those positions reflecting the movement from the margins towards the center of American society, will look more like the concerns of the larger American political culture.