Monday, January 16, 2012

Evangelical Progressivism: An Open Letter to the Editors of Christianity Today

We applaud CT’s recent editorial [“No Taxpayer Is an Island,” December] for giving necessary attention to Elizabeth Warren, whose candidacy offers a breath of fresh air to voters disillusioned with the Babylonian captivity of American politics. Political discourse in our great nation has for too long been dominated by an economic vision that further privileges the already privileged and further disenfranchizes the already disenfranchized. Warren’s social vision challenges these politics as usual, and it is encouraging to see the editors of Christianity Today introducing her to evangelicals.

However, the editors leave us dissatisfied with the attention they gave to Warren. To begin, the editors seem to be of two minds about the relation of church and state as it pertains to Warren. For instance, they affirm that government’s role in society ought to be “limited” (although “not negligible”), and yet chide Warren – a public figure campaigning for government office – for failing to discuss “mediating institutions” as part of her proposals. Either these mediating institutions are within the government’s purview, and so deserving of Warren’s attention, or they are not. At the root of the conceptual dissonance here is a tenuous position on the place of religion in our society. The editors want religious institutions to play an important social role, but they also want them to remain distinct from the government and, perhaps most critically, they do not want government to replicate the services they provide. One detects here not insigificant traces of cultural (if not legal) Christendom, which many evangelicals might see as problematic.

Further, the editors make unnecessary and misleading assumptions about how evangelicals do and ought to relate to certain social visions. For instance, one gets a sense that evangelicalism and the Tea Party rightly go together, while evangelicalism and more progressive social politics are an ill fit, at best. They talk of “evangelical tea partiers” and of a “tea party conservatism that many evangelicals espouse.” On the other side, one finds reference to “secular progressivism that evangelicals rightly reject,” or to Warrren committing “the besetting sin of secular progressivism.” It is not difficult to see that the rhetorical posturing involved here predisposes the reader to view social conservatism favorably and social progressivism unfavorably. What is worse, the editors attach this unfavorable animus to social progressivism by using religiously loaded language: social progressivism commits a “sin,” and repeated descriptions of social progressivism as “secular” plays on the way many people unfortunately associate secularism and atheism.

In presupposing and promulgating these political value judgments, the editors fail to faithfully represent the true breadth of evangelicalism. The truth of the matter is that nothing inherent within evangelical belief necessarily inclines toward social conservatism and away from social progressivism. Indeed, one could construct a cogent case for evangelical commitment pushing one in precisely the opposite direction. We see evidence for this in the heritage of an institution such as Wheaton College, whose founder, Jonathan Blanchard, grounded his own quite radical social progressivism precisely in his evangelical faith. A progressive vision for American society need not be secular, nor need it involve a confusion between church and state that conflates the message of Christ with the platforms of a party.

So while the Christianity Today editors deserve appreciation for bringing Elizabeth Warren to the attention of their evangelical audience, they finally do their audience a disservice in the process. Instead of being an evangelical assessment of a political figure in light of the radical message of the Christian gospel, the editorial reads more like an exercise in political propaganda shrouded in evangelical piety.

W. Travis McMaken (Wheaton College, ‘04)
David W. Congdon (Wheaton College, ‘04)

[Ed. note - David Congdon and I wrote this open letter to the editors of Christianity Today. The context is self-explanatory. A shorter version was submitted to the magazine as a letter to the editor (it is worth noting, I think, that the word limit for such things at CT is unnecessarily restricting), but it does not seem to have appeared in the most recent issue (if the online version just posted is any indication), nor have we heard from the editors. And so we identify one really helpful aspect of theo-blogs - we have another option for getting this out, and now we're exercising it.]

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4 comments:

Matthew said...

I am not up on this, or on politics in general, but I appreciate your final line: "Instead of being an evangelical assessment of a political figure in light of the radical message of the Christian gospel, the editorial reads more like an exercise in political propaganda shrouded in evangelical piety." I think that this is a good challenge to CT, as it ought to faithfully represent the breadth of evangelicalism and not bear false witness.

D.R. Ward said...

"Political discourse in our great nation has for too long been dominated by an economic vision that further privileges the already privileged and further disenfranchizes the already disenfranchized."

This is an interesting bit of social/economic analysis that I am inclined to agree with. However, I am curious as to what sort of study has led you to this conclusion, i.e. what economic sources do you consult in order to explain and analyze current events and political ideologies?

Also, I enthusiastically second what Matthew said above. Great letter!

W. Travis McMaken said...

I hope so, Matt. We'll see!

D.R., cf. the literature and statistical studies dealing with wealth inequality that have sprung up in connection with #OWS. For more wonky stuff, my money is on Krugman. As far as political discourse rather than the economics, one need look no further than the current USA primary campaigns.

Jason said...

I recently read Charles Eerdman's contribution to The Fundamentals called "The Church and Socialism" (http://www.reocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fund71.htm). I don't agree with the relationship of church and state he espouses, but the article itself is surprisingly even-handed about the relationship between the church and socialism, even claiming that a good Christian can be a good socialist without contradiction. It's not quite the social progressivism you're talking about, but it's an interesting example of an early 'Fundamentalist' not making the same mistake as CT did here.