Thursday, March 22, 2007

Evangelical Christians Promoting Revolution?

Apparently, there is "a broad, explicitly nonviolent, anti-imperialist and anticapitalist theology that is surging at the heart of white, suburban Evangelical Christianity." Who knew?

This is according to Zack Exley and his article, "What Lessons Can Progressives Learn from Evangelicals?", published at AlterNet.

There are a number of interesting things to learn from this article. For one thing, I didn't really know about the existence of such a vibrant left-ish movement within U.S. evangelicalism. I'm aware of the existence of a broadly Christian left, of course, and have worked with its members and occasionally pointed people to material about them via this blog. As well, I kind of knew there were progressive evangelicals specifically, because I used to read a blog by one on occasion, though I found his tone irritating so I haven't been back in a long time. But the extent to which there is an emerging social gospel movement, of sorts, amongst the sector generally thought of as the ground troops of the Christian Right is interesting and could eventually prove to be extremely important.

One basic point, perhaps a more important one to make in the U.S. than Canada though useful here too, is that this movement shows it is possible to use strong language to denounce the evils of what is and call for the bringing of what might be and not alienate people. However, contrary to the title, the article does not really provide enough detail, or at least the right kind of detail, for the left to learn many practical lessons from this success. I suppose one point that Exley elaborates is important, though, and that is the importance of the creation of alternative ways of meeting human needs in building a vibrant movement. In fact, he almost seems to miss its importance -- he laments that these left-ish evangelicals are largely quiescent when it comes to "real" politics, and talks about how important the act of building alternatives is for their momentum, but he does not seem to make the connection between having those alternatives in place and having a real place from which to resist if/when confrontation with the state begins in earnest.

In the end, I think I need to learn more. The way that this article is written, it is hard to judge where exactly the boundaries lie between hype meant to sell an article, and useable political analysis. Some of these radical evangelical ministers use language of being against war, against globalization, even against empire and capital, and the language of "revolution" permeates the article. It's hard to tell what exactly that means. Those words can all be very slippery, and I did not come away from the article with the feeling that I really knew what they meant by them. I would be interested in reading a more detailed analysis of their theology and politics. In particular, I found it strange that an article on progressive Christianity in the United States, and more specifical progressive evangelical Christianity, made no mention of African American churches. As well, the author makes clear that these "revolutionary" evangelicals tend to be socially conservative in many ways, and are not in any way wavering from the evangelical commitment to being anti-abortion and anti-queer. The author frames this as a different "morality" from mainstream U.S. America and from the left, and does not explore what this might mean for differences in politics beyond a nod to the difficulty of working together when one's goals are different. As well, though this section of the evangelical community is apparently being proactive in promoting the leadership of women, there is a lot more to anti-patriarchal politics than making sure the chair of the church board has a uterus, and what does this proto-movement think about all of those other things?

Anyway, it has left me with lots of questions, but if it isn't just hype, this material could end up being pretty important to what happens in North America over the next few decades.


eugene plawiuk said...

While focuses on the modern American evangelical phenomena, it behooves me to point out that left wing socially progressive evangelicalism began with Methodism in England in the 18th century and was carried over to Canada by the Social Gospel of Woodsworth and other founders of the CCF. A point Bill Blaike made about why he was quiting parliament, to promote a social gospel alternative to the evangelical right.

Scott said...

Yep, that's very important history that few secular progressives today know...thanks for mentioning it!

I would add that said history is also a good reminder of the need for "ruthless criticism of all that exists", including our progressive forebearers and contemporaries...renowned English historian E.P. Thompson has talked about how the role of Methodism in working class radical movements in England was actually much more ambivalent than some of its latter-day boosters have claimed. Methodism in Canada was just as enthusiastic about playings its part in colonization and genocide of indigenous peoples as any of the more staid and sober representatives of the English-speaking Reformation (see an essay in this book), and as the social gospel emerged from it the notion of social reform or transformation as part of "Christianizing" the nation remained uncritiqued. As well, as admirable as Woodsworth and other radical social gospellers of that era were in many ways, there is lots of interesting scholarship out there (e.g. this) that documents how racism and the imagination of Canada as a white nation were integral to the social gospel's project in that era, as well as assorted other oppressive things.

Of course, that sort of mixed history is not unique to faith-based movements by any means. But there is occasionally a tendency to ignore the mix of oppressive with liberatory in the social gospel, e.g. Richard Allen's classic study.