PROGRESSIVE EVANGELICALS AND THE PURSUIT OF SOCIAL JUSTICE by Brantley W. Gasaway
Friends and followers of Evangelicals for Social Action know from experience what historians of American religion are only beginning to discover: that the Religious Right does not represent the full spectrum of evangelical political engagement in contemporary America. The latest study to prove that point is Brantley W. Gasaway's Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice (University of North Carolina Press, 2014). For the unenlightened and enlightened alike, Progressive Evangelicals offers fresh insight into the growth and development of an under-studied segment of American Christianity.
Progressive Evangelicals begins with the claim that the conventional history of evangelical politics—the one that assumes a longstanding, organic link between evangelicals and Republicanism—misses the full story. Before Baptist fundamentalist Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority and Pentecostal Pat Robertson made his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination, a non-Right stream of evangelical politics emerged as a viable force in American public life. These progressive evangelicals charted a different course from their co-religionists. Amid the cultural and political tumult of the 1960s and 1970s—the Civil Rights movement, the activism of second-wave feminists, and the ardent opposition to the Vietnam War—theologically conservative but politically progressive evangelicals called for attention to issues of social justice and offered a prophetic critique of American racism, sexism, and militarism, among other issues. In their activism and advocacy they self-consciously challenged and attempted to transcend both the political left and political right, chafing at simplistic categorization. Though drowned out by the louder and better-funded Religious Right in the 1980s and 1990s, this progressive evangelical strain has nonetheless persisted well into the 21st century.
Though this historical claim is not unique to Gasaway's study, Progressive Evangelicals proves most useful in explaining the motivating "public theology" behind this organized movement. It utilizes the activities and resources of three prominent progressive evangelical groups—Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), and The Other Side magazine—and their respective leaders as lenses through which to assess this political philosophy. Despite differences in style and substance, the study asserts, these three institutions and individuals were bound by a shared "public theology of community," a "set of theological convictions about public affairs and politics that shaped … efforts to promote a just society." Arguing that all people have both individual rights and collective or communal responsibilities that ought to be protected equally, progressive evangelicals called Christians to embrace a "biblical vision for social justice." They concluded that such a vision, rooted in a shared commitment to the common good and undergirded by a desire to ensure equal opportunities through the equitable distribution of socioeconomic resources, should be the primary philosophy by which Christians engage the political sphere.
Gasaway helpfully shows how this public philosophy of community put progressive evangelicals in dialogue with secular proponents of political liberalism, who objected to the imposition of religious virtues on the public sphere, and with conservative evangelicals, who shared progressives' basic vision of political engagement but differed on key issues and on application. He also describes how progressive evangelicals applied this theology to different issues—racism, sexism, abortion, gay rights, poverty, and nationalism and militarism—in six successive, thematic chapters.
Given progressive evangelicals' shared public theology, one might expect identical or at least similar responses to all of these issues. Yet progressive evangelicals were hardly uniform in their approach. Gasaway somewhat surprisingly—yet convincingly—shows how varied biblical interpretations and political priorities produced divergent, and sometimes contrasting, responses to the same issue. For instance, while both ESA and Sojourners "framed their anti-abortion stance as part of a 'completely pro-life' agenda," they disagreed on specific legislative policy: Sojourners preferred to focus on reducing abortion rates; ESA supported efforts to make most abortions illegal; and The Other Side quietly muted its coverage of abortion issues altogether, hoping to avoid political polarization. In addition, both ESA and Sojourners initially endorsed equal protection under law for gays and lesbians while simultaneously promoting a theological position that refused to condone same-sex sexual behavior; later, in response to pressure from its ecumenical partners, Sojourners adopted a more neutral posture and emphasized dialogue and Christian unity. Meanwhile, The Other Side broke with both groups, endorsing "full acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians" and blessing committed same-sex unions.
Examples like these enable Gasaway to make good on the provocative premise of his book: to show the "dynamic, multivocal nature of the progressive evangelical movement." The success of Progressive Evangelicals rests partially on earlier works, especially David R. Swartz's brilliant Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), which provides the broader historical framework underlying Gasaway's study. Nevertheless, Gasaway certainly breaks new ground. Progressive Evangelicalism offers a detailed, nuanced portrait of how a non-Right strand of conservative Christianity managed to build and sustain its minority movement.
Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas is director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College, where he also teaches in the history and religion departments.