By Brantley Gasaway
The blogosphere is filled with tributes to John Stott, the Anglican minister and international evangelical leader who passed away this past week at the age of 90. There is no need to reinvent the recap of his career on our site: let me recommend this detailed piece at Christianity Today and a brief reflection by Randall Balmer at Religion Dispatches.
But in an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times entitled "Evangelicals Without Blowhards," Nicholas Kristof uses the death of Stott to challenge the popular association of evangelicals with the political conservatism of the Religious Right. Leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson--whom Kristof labels "blowhard scolds"--have caused most liberals to pillory the entire evangelical movement as "reactionary, myopic, anti-intellectual and, if anything, immoral." Yet, Kristof argues,
that casual dismissal is profoundly unfair of the movement as a whole. It reflects a kind of reverse intolerance, sometimes a reverse bigotry, directed at tens of millions of people who have actually become increasingly engaged in issues of global poverty and justice.
As evidence, Kristof points to Stott's long-standing commitments to intellectualism and social justice. In addition to authoring over fifty books, Stott consistently encouraged Christians to fight against poverty, racism, the oppression of women, and apathy toward environmental issues. Indeed, at a pivotal moment in the development of global evangelicalism, Stott gave a keynote address at the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland that insisted Christians must not neglect active work for social justice in their zeal for evangelism. In addition, Stott lent his considerable credibility to the development of evangelical progressivism in America in that period by endorsing the early career of Jim Wallis and becoming a contributing editor to Sojourners.
Kristof lauds Stott for nurturing this "compassionate strain of evangelicalism," and he praises evangelicals who are frequently the ones on the front lines of global battles against "hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide." Because he "stands in awe" of such work, Kristof concludes, "it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties."
Like most readers of this blog, I suspect, I am rarely--ok, never--invited to New York cocktail parties where such sophisticated conversations occur. But even in my more humble circles, I still encounter the suspicion that most evangelicals are theocratic minions of Falwell and Robertson. Scholars of American religion recognize this view as a caricature, of course. Not only have progressive evangelical leaders such as Wallis been active since the early 1970s, but also studies of "ordinary evangelicals" by Christian Smith and by John C. Green have shown that only 30 to 40 percent support or identify with the Religious Right.
Thus the political engagement of evangelicals--both in the United States and especially worldwide--is not inherently conservative. Evangelical politics are complex, contested, and confusing--confusing perhaps not only to readers of the New York Times but also to evangelicals themselves. Which evangelical leader offers the correct political agenda: John Stott or Jerry Falwell? Jim Wallis or Pat Robertson?
Because evangelicals regard the Bible as their ultimate authority, they would ostensibly answer the question by assessing whether Stott's or Falwell's (or Wallis's or Robertson's) agenda has the best biblical support. The problem is, however, that these and other evangelical leaders all support their conflicting positions with biblical arguments and interpretations--and there is no objective or obvious method for judging better or worse biblical support, for that would be to introduce an authority beyond the Bible itself. Of course Christians have differed in their understanding of scriptures ever since the apostolic age, but this disagreement is especially problematic for modern evangelicals. How much can one rely upon biblical authority--especially when it is one's sole authority--if apparently sincere people cannot agree on what the Bible means? How would an evangelical know that she should emulate Stott rather than Falwell (assuming, of course, that she was unwilling to acquiesce to the New York Time's magisterium)?
Reflecting on the difference between John Stott and Jerry Falwell brought to mind a new book that I wanted to highlight here: Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of the Bible. One of the country's leading sociologists of religion, Smith analyzes the popular evangelical theory about the Bible, which he labels "biblicism," that "emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” Because of "pervasive interpretive pluralism"--the fact that the "Bible gives rise to a host of many divergent teachings on important matters--Smith concludes that "it becomes beside the point to assert a text to be solely authoritative or inerrant." While evangelical theologians and historians such as Mark Noll have also identified this problem, Smith's work attempts to offer an accessible, focused critique of biblicism for non-specialists. **
Thus the limits of biblicism represent a conundrum for evangelicals, even for leaders like Stott who embrace a much more complex understanding of biblical authority. "Pervasive interpretive pluralism" guarantees evangelical diversity and division. Evangelical leaders will continue to remain at odds over political, social, and theological issues; laity will often remain confused as they hear competing biblical arguments offered for incompatible positions. Ultimately, the radically different forms of "biblical" public engagement promoted by Stott and Falwell should give all of us--even evangelicals--pause when we hear the Bible invoked to support a particular political stance. After only a minimal search, one can likely find an advocate claiming biblical justification for the exact opposite position.
** Brief note for the interested: Smith does offer a constructive alternative to biblicism that deserves a different post. His own concerns about this issue contributed to his recent conversion to Roman Catholicism, which he describes, not coincidentally, in another newly released work: How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.