John Stott vs. Jerry Falwell: Evangelical Diversity and the Conundrum of "Biblicism"

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.


Anonymous said…
thanks so much for this post. Lots of interesting material here. I've had Smith's book on my mind, but have yet to get around to reading. But if I may, I wanted to respond rather briefly to the quotation from Smith's book: "it becomes beside the point to assert a text to be solely authoritative or inerrant" because the "Bible gives rise to a host of divergent teachings on important matters." I wonder if this kind of advice is primarily given in the hope that, for example, a person like the late Jerry Falwell would not have been so dogmatic (among other things!) when citing Scripture or "thus saith the Lord" to support a controversial or publicly disputed politic position. In which case, it is a kind of modest counsel to practitioners to be more self-aware of divergent interpretations of Scripture or that there is no straightforward or fast and easy way to translate the moral prescriptions and narratives of Scripture into hard and fast political precepts in our modern world. While I appreciate the concern of those who perhaps express puzzlement over evangelicals and what is sometimes seen as a simplistic appeal to Scripture on some contemporary and contested moral issue, what seems to be implicit in these critiques of evangelicalism is that there is some alternative for all those others who are supposedly unified in singular appeal to a "justice," compassion, or other set of principles and ideals. I'm certainly not as convinced that the laity in these churches are as "confused" as this article suggests, given that many of them do not agree with their leaders and have access to other sources of information, in spite of the increasingly insular nature of much of our political conversations and feedback. Even liberal Protestants and Catholics of various theological persuasions are by no means unified in their attempts to instantiate their personal and moral convictions into public policies. So I guess I'm not sure how "biblicism" per se creates more tension when division results on political issues. I realize that this can be a problem to outsiders, but as I've wrestled with this issue when looking at how different Christians held very divergent views of slavery and the Bible, it reminds me that perhaps we expect too much consistency when we examine how people address the messy realities of social and political life. In the end, I wonder, what is the conundrum of biblicism? That people appealing to what they believe to be a sacred and ultimate text can come to opposite conclusions about what it demands of believers? Or that it is hard to see why they don't see that a simple appeal to Scripture can resolve complex social and political problems? Or that some of them can be so dogmatic about it in the face of such realities? Or perhaps that religious peoples of all stripes--well, let's just throw in the entire human race--have been unable to find any common set of principles, or singular text that will guide them to a unified approach to political life, that they have been unable to find that common language to erect a utopia? I'm being a little facetious, but I very much appreciate the article.

Curtis J. Evans