Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans, author of Evolving in Monkeytown

Rachel Held Evans, one of the most influential and impressive young progressive evangelical voices around, posted a nice piece on the Washington Post’s website today. Here’s a taste:

Of course, not everyone is happy with the blog’s success. Evangelical leaders have issued impassioned warnings against the growing number of progressive evangelical voices online, particularly against young evangelicals like me who are challenging the status quo . . .

What seemed to be a growing movement in the 1970s didn’t realize its potential. Perhaps the Internet will help coalesce the evangelical left this time around.


Anyone from the 1970s and 1980s remember the hunger awareness dinners? They were big among the More-with-Less Cookbook, World Vision, and progressive evangelical crowds. Several decades later, hunger is still around, and World Vision has ratcheted up its political advocacy at some of the highest levels of world governance. This week World Vision has been in Chicago lobbying G8 leaders. Check out their Hunger Free campaign here.

Marcia Pally and evangelicalism as a voting mosaic

One of the most astute observers of contemporary evangelical politics is Marcia Pally, a professor at New York University and author of The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good.

Check out both her website and her recent piece on evangelicals as a voting mosaic:

This requires political independence, an idea with increasing emphasis since 2005, when Christianity Today lambasted the conflation of Biblical values and American or Republican ones. In 2006, Frank Page, then president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, said, “I have cautioned our denomination to be very careful not to be seen as in lock step with any political party.”The Evangelical Environmental Network, Evangelicals for Human Rights, Red Letter Christians and The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good have all had aims that conflict with Republican policies. In 2007, the National Association of Evangelicals, against the Bush administration, issued its “Evangelical Declaration against Torture.”In 2010-2011, it repeatedly protested against Republican budget cuts for the needy.

If this looks like a shift worth noting, it gets bigger when one looks at evangelical youth – the political future. The significance of the under-40 Democratic vote in 2008 grows when one considers that coming-of-age politics guides political preferences throughout life. And as Jonathan Merritt, a young Southern Baptist pastor, said in 2008 of the Republican appeal to younger evangelicals, “The McCain campaign is really out to lunch.”

Today, fully 65 percent of evangelicals ages 18-30 favor bigger government and more governmental social-service provision, such as Obama’s Affordable Care Act and government aid to the poor – not exactly Republican positions. They are, as Associated Press religion writer Eric Gorski found, “even more anti-abortion than their elders” on ethical grounds, “but also keenly interested in the environment and poverty.”

Love your enemy week

Dirk Willems saves his pursuer in this etching from the 1685 edition of Martyrs Mirror.

Each year in May, Anabaptists commemorate the death of Dirk Willems, who was burned at the stake in 1569. His story is both inspiring and horrifying. Here’s the Mennonite Quarterly Review’s narrative:

Dirk was caught, tried and convicted as an Anabaptist in those later years of harsh Spanish rule under the Duke of Alva in The Netherlands. He escaped from a residential palace turned into a prison by letting himself out of a window with a rope made of knotted rags, dropping onto the ice that covered the castle moat. Seeing him escape, a palace guard pursued him as he fled. Dirk crossed the thin ice of a pond, the “Hondegat,” safely. His own weight had been reduced by short prison rations, but the heavier pursuer broke through. Hearing the guard’s cries for help, Dirk turned back and rescued him. The less-than-grateful guard then seized Dirk and led him back to captivity. This time the authorities threw him into a more secure prison, a small, heavily barred room at the top of a very tall church tower, above the bell, where he was probably locked into the wooden leg stocks that remain in place today. Soon he was led out to be burned to death.

Many progressive evangelicals of the 1970s were–and still are today–Mennonite or Brethren descendents of Anabaptist martyrs like Willems who pursued peace and love for enemies.

An evangelical vision of shalom

Many moderate and progressive evangelicals like to speak of the biblical vision of shalom. Randy Woodley, a professor at George Fox in Oregon, just wrote a book published by Eerdmans called Shalom and the Community of Creation that emphasizes that shalom is not just an absence of warfare. It also includes the concepts of wholeness, safety, soundness, tranquility, fullness, rest, and harmony. Woodley explores these New Testament themes and suggests that the path of Jesus can promote both social and personal health:

reconciliation between Euro-Westerners and indigenous peoples, a new connectedness with the Creator and creation, an end to imperial warfare, the ability to live in the moment, justice, restoration — and a more biblically authentic spirituality.

The Search for Piety and Obedience

Sider comes out of the BIC

Devin Manzullo-Thomas has been great about getting the word out about my book, so I’m going to him back a little love. He just finished his master’s thesis at Temple University on the Brethren in Christ, which is an Anabaptist denomination that produced Ron Sider and other members of the evangelical left. Check out his great blog at The Search for Piety and Obedience.

Just finished eight hours of sessions at the IUPUI workshop. I’ve really enjoyed the fascinating papers on pro-life progressives, evangelical environmentalists, international trade, evangelical-Catholic networks, and many others. It’s also been great to meet both younger colleagues and famous senior scholars such as John Green, Glen Stassen, Joel Carpenter, Stephen Warner, and Laurel Kearns. One concluding comment for now: sociologists and anthropologists sure do things differently than historians!

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 raac@iupui.edu if you have questions about this event.

Obama’s new faith outreach director

Michael Wear’s Twitter profile picture

During the 2008 campaign, Democrats worked hard to appeal to evangelicals and Catholics. But after the election they routed large amounts of funding and personnel away from faith and values initiatives. This raised questions about whether the new religious fluency was substantive or merely cosmetic. Right on cue, just half a year before the 2012 election, Democrats are starting to ratchet up their campaign to reach people of faith. Here’s the report from CNN:

Washington (CNN) – Just as it confronts fallout with some religious communities over President Barack Obama’s newly expressed support for same-sex marriage, the Obama re-election campaign is hiring a religious outreach director, it confirmed Tuesday.

Michael Wear, who currently serves as executive assistant to the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, will join the Obama campaign in Chicago as faith vote coordinator, a campaign official said.

Wear, who was raised a Catholic but now attends a nondenominational, evangelical-style church in Washington, has spearheaded White House outreach to evangelicals and has focused on policy issues like adoption throughout Obama’s first term.

Preaching and the evangelical left

Bet you didn’t know that there’s a Festival of Homiletics. Well, there is, and according to Tony Jones, the usual program consists of sermon-lecture-sermon-lecture. Yeah, not my idea of fun. Apparently, though, they’re mixing things up today in Atlanta. Because it’s “Emergent Preaching Day!” On his blog Jones says, “We live in the most highly educated society and the most highly participatory culture in the history of humankind. Everything around us has changed: the clothes we wear, the way we transport ourselves, how we communicate. And yet, 99% of preachers stand up on Sunday morning and deliver a monologue. A soliloquy. And their churches decline. And they wring their hands. There is another way. There is a way of participation and inclusion and dialogue and conversation.”

Sounds like a great idea, especially if you’re into the concept of the “priesthood of all believers.” Some friends of mine from Keller Park Missionary Church in South Bend (where we lived during grad school) do participatory “sermons.” This was also the style of many progressive evangelicals who lived in intentional communities in the 1970s. Here’s an excerpt from my chapter on the Christian World Liberation Front:

As part of the growing Jesus Movement, members pushed against old denominational allegiances and experimented with Pentecostal and contemplative modes of worship. They nurtured the language of the streets, dismissing legalistic fundamentalism in favor of a freer, more spontaneous faith. Men arrived at prayer meetings wearing beards and blue jeans. Women wore peasant skirts. When meetings finally got started—epidemic lateness and socializing characterized their gatherings—members raised their arms and sang enthusiastically. They played guitars instead of pianos and organs. They sang “Kum-ba-yah, My Lord” and “Pass It On,” songs inspired by both orthodox doctrine and a countercultural style. Instead of sitting in pews, they perched on folding chairs or sat cross-legged on the floor. Leaders eschewed formal sermons in favor of more casual “teachings” or group sharing that often veered in tangential directions. For the celebration of communion, CWLF served Spanada wine—not grape juice—in Dixie cups. For countercultural evangelicals from conservative evangelical congregations who “just wanted to stand up and scream at the top of my lungs” at the “repetitious absurdity” of formulaic evangelical congregations, these new styles were refreshing in their end run around traditional worship forms.

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