Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

The New Evangelicals – Marcia Pally [Featured Review]

Page 2 – The New Evangelicals – Marcia Pally

Pally follows the history of church/state separation, looking at the roots of modern evangelicalism and the factors that pushed it into the arms of Conservative politics. Evangelicals, she notes, were from the outset staunch defenders of strict church/state separation, “untainted by political corruption… and associated with optimistic, anti-authoritarian individualism” (48).  She goes on to explore in detail the events that led to evangelicals’ about-face, ending at George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Something about this state of affairs (no pun intended) has struck a chord with the academic in Pally, and New Evangelicals as a whole is her attempt to get an evidence-based handle on one alternative: can evangelicals be politically active without being politically obnoxious?  She goes on to examine in painstaking detail what she identifies as the political assumptions of New Evangelicals: that policy must be assessed on an issue-by-issue basis; that laws should be constitutionally based and neutral to religion; that rights afforded to one religion should be afforded to all religions; and that Christians should act in civil society, constrained by law but engaged in public life.  She sees these fundamentals as being inherently supportive of liberal democracy, and so concludes that New Evangelicalism sees the inherent value of liberal democracy, in contrast to conservative evangelicalism’s “prototheocratic yearnings” (13).

“… ‘new evangelical’ political thought begins with the idea that no fallen, human government is God’s kingdom… from this separation between the kingdoms of God and the world, the separation of church and state is not a long leap… The… Christian option is neither withdrawal from public life nor aggressive imposition of Christian ideas. Rather, it is a Christian community that obeys positive law in all but extreme circumstances, defends its country under the extreme condition of invasion, and spends most of its time serving… From this revolutionary subordination and service, civil society activism is also not a long leap.” (137)

Pally spends the second half of the book examining the specific issues of this civil society activism, identifying those aspects of church/state life that have been resolved in the judicial and legislative sphere, and those that remain unresolved. She intersperses chapters looking at these aspects (like coreligionist hiring, display of religious symbols in public places, and prayer in schools) from an academic and historical standpoint, with in-depth interviews with a range of New Evangelicals from across the American landscape. The interviews give a voice and a language to the rather dry academic categories Pally has culled from her various qualitative examinations, and they’re a welcome addition to the total narrative.  They include: Richard Cizik, who left the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and formed the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good (which this book’s title evokes) after expressing his support for civil unions, climate change science, and political collaboration with the Obama Administration; Joel Hunter, pastor of the massively multisite Northland Church in Longwood, FL; Heather Gonzales, Director of the NAE; Vineyard Pastors Tim McFarlane and Tri Robinson; Simple Way founder Shane Claiborne; and heavyweights of the Christian Left, Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis.  In almost every case, she prods them to comment on the issues of concern to her, specific to church/state separation or involvement.

Like I said, I’m no political heavyweight, but it doesn’t take a policy wonk to see where Pally’s sympathies lie.  She loves the historical concept of liberal democracy, and she clearly admires a religious activism supportive of that concept, promoting the common good without attempting to overreach in the political arena. New Evangelicals narrowly defines evangelicalism in the political sphere. To this end, its focus on strictly political aspects of evangelicalism is appropriate, and it goes deeply into that exploration.  But Pally steps on that focus heavily, to the detriment of the sacred. In fact, she leans so hard in the direction of an evangelical political liberalism that she paradoxically validates the conservative view of evangelicalism as a tool of political advantage.  To be fair, she devotes a chapter to the theological underpinnings of the New Evangelical mindset, and it is a thorough and erudite examination.  But it’s also a bit of a set-up: for Pally, liberal democracy is obviously the best political system there is, therefore it is morally good to practice religion in support of liberal democracy.  But Jesus is the first cause of our moral faculty, and our polity is entirely as members of His Body.  Our political action, as Yoder says so well, is to participate in the Eucharist. And then, maybe, to support liberal democracy, or to yearn prototheocratically or whatever, but only secondary to our allegiance to our First King.  Evangelicalism, new or otherwise, is not primarily a service to the structure and functioning of the state.  It’s something else, and it serves Someone Else.

It might be surprising, given that critique, to hear that I recommend this book to anyone interested in the state of the political and evangelical landscapes today.  Pally is the first to try to herd the disparate voices rising in opposition to Christian Conservatism’s hijack of the Evangelical Brand, to organize them into something approaching coherence and to try to understand them as a whole.  That the result is somewhat more political than devotional is merely a function of the author’s background and understanding.  The many interviews offer a corrective, balancing that particular voice nicely with a more authentic glimpse of a political orientation that embraces service-unto-sacrifice.  Like the subtle Cross in the cover design, Jesus is in there somewhere. If he’s worth looking for anywhere, he’s certainly worth looking for here.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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