Off to IUPUI

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

This afternoon I’m heading to Indianapolis for a three-day workshop with the good folks at the Center for Religion and American Culture at IUPUI. The 12 participants will be discussing “The New Evangelical Social Engagement.” I’ll be presenting a paper entitled “Global Reflex: International Evangelicals, Human Rights, and the New Shape of American Social Engagement.” The workshop concludes Saturday morning with a public forum. Here’s the news release:

“The New Evangelical Social Engagement,” a Public Forum, with opening comments by Joel Carpenter, Calvin College; Glen Stassen, Fuller Theological Seminary; and R. Stephen Warner, University of Illinois-Chicago

Saturday, May 19, 2012, 10:30 a.m., IUPUI University Library, Lilly Auditorium, 755 W. Michigan Street, Indianapolis, IN.

This public forum culminates a private workshop of scholars studying the fact that in recent years, evangelical Protestants have increasingly turned their energies toward issues such as homelessness, poverty, urban renewal, sustainable development, climate change, racial reconciliation, HIV/Aids, human trafficking, peacemaking, and the like, marking a shift in social priorities when compared to past decades. Evangelicals themslves realize that there is change afoot, and some scholars have recognized this trend anecdotally, but there has yet to be a sustained academic effort to explore it. Fourteen scholars will gather in Indianapolis to present their work on this topic, and this forum will allow for interaction and discussion with them.

The recent trends in social engagement among American evangelicals look new from the vantage point of the twentieth century, but they are also a return to the historical roots of evangelicalism. The birth of evangelicalism in the United States dates to the mid-eighteenth century. From the outset, evangelicals combined an emphasis on transforming individuals’ spiritual lives with a commitment to reforming social institutions to better reflect their ideals. This commitment to reform could be seen throughout the nineteenth century in areas ranging from abolitionism and temperance to educational and labor reforms. Changes in the early twentieth century mark what became known as the “Great Reversal,” when conservative Protestants (soon to be labeled “fundamentalists”) largely ceased their efforts at social reform to focus exclusively on witnessing to non-believers and enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy. The 1940s gave rise to the “neo-evangelical” movement and what we now call modern evangelicalism. Mainstream evangelicals sought to redeem society, but by saving souls, not by transforming social institutions. Direct social engagement was explicitly proscribed by evangelical leaders of the era. (This prohibition was not without dissenters, but it represented the dominant evangelical viewpoint of the era.) Views changed with the rise of the “New Christian Right” and the close ties that evangelicals developed with the Republican Party. Evangelical activists and their followers sought to influence legislative reform and electoral politics, but their agenda was devoted to issues related to gender, sexuality, and public education—abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, prayer in public schools, and civil rights for gays and lesbians.

Seen against this historical backdrop, recent trends in evangelical social engagement mark a significant departure from evangelical priorities over the past century. This new social engagement runs contrary to the evangelical prohibitions against direct social action in the postwar era, and its focal issues differ sharply from the set of issues taken up by the New Christian Right beginning in the 1980s. Evangelicals have been at the forefront of the struggle for human rights across Africa and have launched a set of initiatives to combat the human causes of global warming. They have initiated local campaigns against homelessness and formulated economic development strategies for urban renewal. These examples illustrate broader trends:  the overall increase in evangelical social activism at both the domestic and international levels, and the new set of issues that have captured evangelical energies in recent years.

Please contact the Center by calling 317-274-8409 or by email at if you have questions about this event.

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