The Common Good

Evangelical political theologies

Date: November 29, 2012

This is not about the right candidate; this is about how evangelicals frame their relationship to politics. And one of the best pieces to read on this topic is Geoffrey C. Bowden’s “The Evangelical-Anabaptist Spectrum,” an essay in the fine book The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism. What Bowden does is sketch the spectrum from Francis Schaeffer to John Howard Yoder and, at the same time, show Jim Wallis began more like Yoder and is today more like Schaeffer. Yikes, that’s quite the thesis.

Francis Schaeffer played an important role in my own thinking. As a college student he taught me to think critically about current, inadequate conditions in the church. I read everything he wrote until he wrote No Little People, and after that I bought a book or two — including A Christian Manifesto — but did not read much of him any longer.

So this sketch by Bowden about Schaeffer surprised me a bit. Schaeffer was far more aggressive about how the evangelical was to enter and use the political process than I knew. Schaeffer himself moved from fundamentalism into European evangelicalism (and this is what attracted me to him) but then shifted toward a politically-active evangelicalism. He posed humanism over against a Judeo-Christian concept of truth. Like Jim Wallis, he thought evangelicals were far too inactive politically and culturally, and Schaeffer — mistakenly, I think — blamed Pietism. But that category stuck for many. Pietists were home praying; genuine evangelicals were activists.

The issue for Schaeffer was justice, but he meant law, and saw in the cross the manifestation of justice — which means a kind of satisfaction, penal substitution theory of how to make things right. But Schaeffer was wary of wrapping the faith with the American flag. So he wanted to reform the laws and protest the government when it failed to live up to the law, God’s law. Bowden: “Schaeffer then mines intellectual history to construct a defense of armed revolution against a government that failed to base its laws on the Bible.”