The Common Good

Randall Balmer answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

orange question markNothing better symbolizes the current confusion over the nature and character of evangelicalism than the subtitle to an article in the current issue of Christianity Today, the magazine considered by its editors the flagship publication of evangelicalism.

The article, written by Aaron B. Franzen, a graduate student in sociology at Baylor University, summarized his research findings among evangelicals who read the Bible for themselves, absent the biases of evangelical leaders.

Franzen discovered that "unlike some other religious practices, reading the Bible more often has some liberalizing effects -- or at least makes the reader more prone to agree with liberals on certain issues."

The puzzle here is not that readers of the Bible would tilt toward the political left. That, for me, as well as for thousands of other American evangelicals, is self-evident. Jesus, after all, summoned his followers to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to welcome the stranger and to care for "the least of these." He also expressed concern for the tiniest sparrow, a sentiment that should find some resonance in our environmental policies.

No, the real conundrum lies in the subtitle the editors of Christianity Today assigned to Franzen's article, which was titled, "A Left-Leaning Text." Adjacent to a picture of a Bible tilted about 45 degrees to the left, the editors added the subtitle: "Survey Surprise: Frequent Bible reading can turn you liberal (in some ways)."

The fact that anyone should register surprise that the Bible points toward the left should be the biggest surprise of all.

But it reflects the unfortunate state of evangelicalism in America today. (I specify "America" because almost everywhere else in the world, aside from some belts of homophobic hysteria in Africa, evangelicals gravitate toward the left of the political spectrum. In Latin America, to cite one example, Pentecostalism has all but displaced liberation theology as the "theology of the people.")

The conundrum of American evangelicalism deepens when one considers the history of American evangelicalism itself, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Antebellum evangelicals mounted a comprehensive campaign to remake society. They worked to abolish slavery and to establish public education, known at the time as "common schools," in order to advance the fortunes of those less fortunate. They advocated equal rights for women, including voting rights, and they sought reform of the penal system (the whole notion of a "penitentiary," where a criminal might be rehabilitated -- become penitent -- and eventually rejoin society).

Antebellum evangelicalism also included a robust peace movement, and Charles Grandison Finney, the most influential evangelical of the 19th century, excoriated capitalism as utterly inimical to Christianity. Finney allowed that "the business aims and practices of business men are almost universally an abomination in the sight of God." What are the principles of those who engage in business? Finney asked. "Seeking their own ends; doing something not for others, but for self."

Other evangelicals echoed Finney's suspicion of business interests, as did evangelicals of a later era, people such as William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic nominee for president. But the one overriding characteristic of these evangelicals was their concern for those on the margins of society.

Contrast that with the sentiments of the tea party and the agenda of the Religious Right.

What happened? The story is too complex to recount here -- and it is the subject of my next book -- but the pages of Christianity Today provide a clue. Just a few issues earlier, the editors ran another of their (seemingly endless) series of puff pieces on hard-right politicians, a series that has included such heroes of the faith as Bobby Jindal, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich.

The co-mingling of evangelicalism with political conservatism represents a tragic distortion of the faith as well as a forfeiture of the noble legacy of 19th century evangelical activism. I suspect that Franzen, author of "A Left-Leaning Text," is correct: "Those who are most engaged in their faith (by directly and frequently reading its source material) are those who are most supportive of social justice."

Randall BalmerRandall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond.

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