The Common Good

How progressive is new agenda evangelicalism?

Source: Daily Kos
Date: February 27, 2008

In a post on The Huffington Post entitled, "A Religious Landscape Ripe for Revival," Jim Wallis of Sojourners notes the latest Pew survey on religious life seems to indicate that non-denominational churches are growing. He observes that churches offering a personal faith--one that is not deeply doctrinal--are growing. And he believes that such churches include ones offering a "new evangelical agenda." This agenda is one:

focusing on poverty, the environment and climate change, human rights, war and peace, and, yes, the sanctity of human life.... Why pit unborn children against poor children? Rather, let's see them all in the category of the vulnerable that Jesus calls us to defend.

Yes, the agenda sounds good.

The agenda is certainly not anything that would typically be included as part of the agenda of the religious right--a rightwing political movement that is also religiously conservative and quick to tear down the wall separating Church from State. Jim Wallis has never really been considered a member of the religious right. But, as Frederick Clarkson demonstrated on Talk To Action, Wallis has sadly ventured into a favorite religious right pastime: scapegoating secular Americans.* And Wallis' description of the new evangelical agenda raises questions such as who and what will these evangelicals defend.

Specifically, what exactly does the "new evangelical agenda" mean in light of the struggles of gay Americans, reproductive rights, and the separation of church and state?

There are progressive religious Americans, and some are evangelicals, who uphold a woman's right to chose, who want rights furthered for gay Americans, and who uphold the separation of church and state. Several of the contributors to the website Talk To Action demonstrate this.

But are the evangelicals like Wallis the same thing as progressive religious Americans? Is there perhaps religious progressivism and then, separately, "new agenda" evangelicalism that is--to put it bluntly--less conservative than the religious right but are not necessarily as broadly progressive, and in some regards might even be conservative?

Because the social movement Wallis describes and represents is still in formation--its size and nature being harder to define than even that of the religious right--the above questions are difficult to answer. But it's not just that the movement is still evolving that can make it hard to understand, it's also that its leaders can be vague in their statements, including Wallis.

For instance, many of the newly-minted progressive evangelicals, like Wallis, stress "strengthening marriage and the family" as an issue, which surely they must know has become well-established by the religious right as meaning, in part, policy positions specifically opposing same-sex civil unions and gay marriage, and often opposing things described by the religious right as steps towards gay marriage, such as anti-discrimination legislation relative to housing and employment for gay Americans, or benefits (and responsibilities) extended to same-sex couples relative to health care, taxation, and inheritance.

Many progressive evangelicals still quickly stress "the sanctity of human life" as an issue, which surely they must know is well-established (by the religious right) as meaning, in part, policies specifically opposing women's reproductive rights as well as access to birth-control and effective sex education.

Wallis writes that new agenda evangelicalism doesn't necessarily mean "private, conservative, Republican, Religious Right, abortion, and gay marriage." Just to what extent does it not mean these things? To only a limited extent, perhaps. What else are we to think until such time that Wallis and new agenda evangelicals begin defining human rights as including gay issues, strengthening the family as including strengthening gay partnerships, and sanctity of life as including access to birth-control and effective sex education, and not opposing a woman's right to chose. (Wallis supports a ban on abortion, but not all self-identified evangelicals do.)

And what about the separation of church and state? There are progressive religious Americans extremely determined to uphold that separation. But are the progressive evangelicals who Wallis is describing? Wallis has repeated shown an inability to appreciate the success of religious right propaganda about the separation of church and state. As Bruce Wilson summarized on Talk To Action, many assertions Wallis made in God's Politics were:

hard to distinguish from the rhetoric of James Dobson or arguments of the Family Research Council and, indeed, comprised what may be the central narrative animating the modern American religious right political movement: that American society and the American moral fabric have been unraveling for decades and unnamed "secularists", liberal theologians, Liberal politicians, and American secular government itself, are to blame. The solution, per Wallis ? - Christianity, and more Christianity. Such notions, though, are not of Wallis' making - they actually are hundreds of years old and trace back to the Counter-Enlightenment.

Would "Christianity, and more Christianity" mean an erosion of the separation of church and state as part of the new agenda evangelical solution to social problems such as poverty? Perhaps not. For Wallis to echo the religious right's secular baiting is not necessarily for him or new agenda evangelicals to oppose the separation of church and state. And "Christianity, and more Christianity" is not his phrase--but it is an apt summary. To what extent for new agenda evangelicals might this mean allowing or promoting faith-based government-funded programs, lifting bans on prayer in public schools? And to what extent might it mean continuing to see the secular left as more of an enemy than as a partner in various progressive causes.

Is the new evangelical agenda that Wallis is identifying one that will champion some aspects of broader progressivism, but not others, one that will--unlike the religious right--stay quiet and not organize relative to opposing same-sex civil unions or overturning Roe v. Wade, but will in the privacy of the voting booth still allow those issues to be important issues affecting how they vote...and by extension the lives of millions of non-evangelical Americans, "new agenda" or not?

*Frederick Clarkson's observation was part of a post concerning Sen. Barack Obama secular baiting in a speech; however, an update to the post notes that Sen. Obama has not engaged in secular baiting since. Conversely, Wallis continues to do so.