Has Park Street Church joined the evangelical left?

Park Street Church in Boston

Great post up at Religion & Politics today. It’s the latest in a series on faith and politics in each of the fifty states. In it Heather Curtis profiles Park Street Church in Boston, Mass. More than any other church, Park Street stood as the exemplar of neo-evangelicalism in the 1950s and 1960s. It had close ties to Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and other important mid-century leaders. It also stood for some of the rightist and patriotic excesses of the era. Here’s an excerpt from Moral Minority:

The fawning support of Nixon by certain notable evangelical elites infuriated progressive leaders. Besides Graham, the most egregious case was Harold Ockenga, a longtime pastor at Park Street Church in Boston and founding president of the National Association of Evangelicals. In a newspaper article written just one week before the election, Ockenga effused about the “high moral integrity” of his “personal friend” Nixon. In a letter to EFM, Ockenga wrote, “I for one cannot understand how any of you men of evangelical conviction can back Mr. McGovern.” Soon after, the local newspaper, the Hamilton-Wenham Chronicle, printed a gossipy report on the Ockengas’ attendance at the inaugural. Ockenga and his wife had chatted with the Rockefellers, Billy Graham, and Henry Kissinger at a formal dinner to which Mrs. Ockenga wore “a striking creation” by designer Oscar de LaRenta. It was a “formal, empire-waisted gown of a gold motif,” reported the Chronicle, “beautiful to behold.” Relieved that “the city was extremely calm—I really didn’t see any hippies” and pleased by “the number of times God was mentioned in the various events,” Mrs. Ockenga reported that attending the inaugural was “the greatest thrill of my life.”

And now, forty years later:

In the years since, Park Street’s evangelicals have continued to bring Christian faith to bear on issues of social, economic and political concern—though not always in the ways that Billy Graham imagined. As the congregation has grown increasingly younger (70 percent of the approximately 2,000 weekly attendees are in their 20s and 30s) and international (with 59 nations represented on a given Sunday), modes of political and social engagement—not to mention party affiliation—have become more diverse, reflecting a national trend toward “more liberal” views among “young evangelicals.” In fact, church leaders describe Park Street’s current mission as one of “human rights and social justice.” These were the qualities for which Boston mayor Thomas Menino praised Park Street on its bicentennial in 2009. Menino celebrated the church as “an active promoter of social justice and contributor to the needs of Bostonians” whose “early and current ministers and members  . . .  engage in extensive educational, medical and humanitarian mission and outreach all over the world.”

Is Curtis’s update on Park Street, which shows significant movement toward the evangelical left, representative of evangelicalism nationally?


6 Replies to “Has Park Street Church joined the evangelical left?”

  1. Many of my right-of-center evangelical friends show evidence of moving in the direction of the evangelical left. They, however, do not yet acknowledge that fact. They are waiting for their “leaders” to model what will be their new language.

  2. Well, Nixon wasn’t completely left or right since he created the EPA, and did wage and price controls. The right also dislikes the man. Personality in spite of his less desired traits he actually was different than modern politicians like George W Bush which had to take mainly a right wing position except no child left behind or 30 billion to Africa or Barrick Obama Gay marriage and basic left wing dogma like tax only the top 2 percent instaed of across the board there are a lot more taxpayers at 76,000 than 300,000 . Nixon was one of the last Presidents that were not involved by their party as much as current presidents.

  3. David, after reading Vicki Sairs’ article in the Beacon profiling your book, I’m wondering if having Jim Wallis as President Obama’s spiritual advisor negates the minority status of the evangelical left. Also, does ” Emergent” and “Evangelical Left” mean the same thing?

  4. Hi Marvin,
    Good questions. I don’t think it negates the movement’s minority status, though it is remarkable on some levels. For one thing, I doubt it means a lot. These “spiritual advisers” to politicians are a dime a dozen, and there are a lot more spiritual advisers “working” with politicians on the Right. On both sides, politicians use these relationships to curry favor more than seek spiritual guidance, I suspect. There’s some overlap between emergent and evangelical left, but they’re not the same necessarily. I’ll try to do a post about this down the road.

  5. “Minority” certainly has more meaning than simply a smaller head count. For instance, Jews are a minority when it comes to numbers, but are anything but that in political and economic clout. The same with Wallis. The social justice evangelicals now have someone at the highest level of influence. Not that Wallis has a huge influence on the president, but by choosing him, the president has essentially endorsed the brand.

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