Jesus and Justice: Review by Steven Miller

I'm pleased today to guest-post Steven Miller's review of the important new book Jesus and Justice. Steven last posted here about the latest revelations of the Billy Graham-Richard Nixon connection.

Blue, Green, and Evangelical

Review of Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009)

By Steven P. Miller

For optimists in progressive evangelical circles, the inauguration of President Barack Obama signaled a new era. The inaugural ceremony featured a minister from the evangelical world, conventionally understood—Rick Warren, heir to longtime Christianity Today editor Carl F. H. Henry’s tradition of social engagement. It also featured a minister whose theology progressive evangelicals admire—Joseph Lowery, peer of Martin Luther King, Jr., and beacon of the black church activist tradition. The hope—and “hope” is perhaps the key word in progressive evangelical circles, preferable to “progress” itself—was that Obama could weave these two strands together, instantiating a new brand of evangelical politics.

In Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race, and American Politics, theologian Peter Goodwin Heltzel places himself on the vanguard of progressive evangelical hope. Heltzel, who writes from an evangelical theological perspective and a progressive political one, argues that a mature evangelical social movement has arrived and that it represents a synthesis of King, saint of twentieth-century prophetic Christianity, and Henry, voice of the postwar neo-evangelical movement. In this sense, Heltzel offers a dialectical interpretation of modern evangelical social activism. “As a new generation of evangelical activists embraces King’s vision for racial equality and reconciliation,” he argues, “and as evangelicals in the Henry tradition seek to live into his call to justice and reform, a growing intercultural evangelical coalition is embodying a prophetic politics of hope” (xxiii). This amounts to “a major paradigm shift in evangelical political life: the birth of a new prophetic evangelical politics” (4).

Heltzel’s synthesis contains elements of both theological aspiration and historical analysis. That is, he desires to explain how a King-Henry synthesis is theologically possible, while also explaining how it became historically possible. For his argument to have historical merits, then, Heltzel must offer “a new genealogy of evangelicalism” (11). And, here, despite my trained instincts as a fair reader, I confess having had some skepticism from the start. For as much as historians of religion like to rail against our colleagues who don’t “get religion,” those colleagues sometimes have little incentive to make the effort. Evangelical historiography, especially, has not fully overcome its insider origins and sometimes reflects agendas that non-specialists have few good reasons to care about. Might a work that so seamlessly merges theology with history only perpetuate this trend? So, while I hope that Heltzel is right about the emergence of a durable evangelical progressivism, I’m not sure that his thesis works as a description of evangelical history up to Obama era. But he sure does make you think. The rich tensions within his dialectic make this book well worth reading—and, if you’ll bear with me for a while longer, worth reviewing, as well.

I find much to admire about this ambitious book. Heltzel’s inclusion of “transdenominational populism” as a historically defining characteristic of American evangelicalism gives his narrative welcome breadth and allows room for conceptual creativity (7). Race stands as a central theme of American evangelical history. In Heltzel’s telling, American evangelicalism was a certifiably bi-racial phenomenon nearly from the start, before the Civil War era witnessed the tragic severing of “prophetic black Christianity” (including Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth in their roles as “prophetess”) from a white evangelicalism that abandoned its inclusive revivalist heritage (29, 30). “These two streams—white evangelical and black prophetic—continued on to clash during the civil rights movement but would begin to converge in the aftermath of the Iraq war in the early twenty-first century,” writes Heltzel (43). Something happened on the way to this convergence—namely, King and Henry. King, argues Heltzel, is not a new addition to the evangelical tradition, but rather a product of it. For Heltzel, evangelical theology stands with the black church and liberal theology as major influences on King. If King is a forgotten evangelical, then Henry is a forgotten prophet who created theological space for subsequent evangelical activism.

Heltzel then turns to four recent expressions of evangelical politics in all their richness and complexity: Focus on the Family (founded by neo-Victorian paterfamilias James Dobson), National Association of Evangelicals (whose increasingly well-rounded approach to custodial activism appears to have survived the Ted Haggard sex scandal), Christian Community Development Association (co-founded by the remarkable black evangelical activist, John Perkins), and the Sojourners community (associated with Jim Wallis, journalists’ go-to man for reminders that not all evangelicals like Dobson or liked Haggard). Heltzel’s case studies are notable for their nuance and attention to different, often competing theologies of Christ. He sees in Dobson, whose newsworthiness climaxed during the George W. Bush presidency, “the twilight of evangelical warrior politics” (5). The new “evangelical public theology is cast in a shade of blue green.” Blue represents the “long tragedy of black suffering,” green “an emergent holism” among evangelicals who reject the soul-centered individualism that Henry could never kick (203).

To return to my initial skepticism, I found myself asking whether “blue green” politics is a product of history or a product of Heltzel’s considerable skills as a theological and preacher. Perhaps Heltzel would gladly answer, “All of the above!” Observe the following unselfconscious blend of history and theology in Heltzel’s discussion of black Christianity as a species of evangelicalism: “Furthermore, the theological subjectivity and subversive political agency of black Christians is an integral part of renarrating America’s evangelical past and constructing a prophetic evangelical future” (15). My concern here is that some history might get sacrificed for the sake of hope. A few pages later, for example, Heltzel exaggerates the racial generosity of Jonathan Edwards and the anti-slavery activism of Charles Finney (16, 27). He likely also exaggerates the evangelical impulses of King. Heltzel’s strongest case there concerns King’s “deep commitment to biblical authority” (58). Yet King’s non-literalism, among many other things, distanced him from the avowed evangelicals of his own time. In the end, Heltzel could stand to be more self-conscious about the tendency of nearly everyone—left or right, blue or green—to embrace King. Likewise, calling Henry “a prophet before his time” in a book of this nature invites impossible comparisons with King, who really was an American radical (73). As Heltzel notes, Henry’s brand of Lordship theology was politically ambidextrous; John Howard Yoder and Francis Schaeffer alike reflected elements of it. Henry always has struck me as a conservative man, at heart, but one who wanted his public witness to be relevant. Heltzel rightly links Henry’s anti-statism with the libertarian heritage of his Baptist faith. But what seems radical when raging against the Puritan Biblical commonwealth seems, well, much less prophetic when fretting about federal civil rights legislation.

Perhaps I am holding Heltzel to an unfair disciplinary standard. After all, he is a theologian, not a historian, and surely I am not doing his theological moves justice. Rolling with that hypothetical punch, then, I close with a few normative thoughts of my own (reflecting, no doubt, my own shade of politics, which tends toward left-liberal wonkishness . . . blue red, perhaps?).

For starters, I wonder how Heltzel would respond to the suggestion that he and his fellow progressive evangelicals operate in the historical shadows not only of King and Henry, but also of the liberal Protestant tradition that their elders maligned and that they dismiss as no longer relevant. There are many understandable political reasons for not wanting to concede this debt, but some good and honest reasons for doing so.

Heltzel’s main problem with liberal Protestants could be that they are not in fact very religious. Fair enough. But, turning to my second thought, perhaps Heltzel’s brand of evangelical activism is not worldly enough. That is, he does not seem to grapple fully with the possibility that liberal statism can and will address many of his prophetic concerns. To call an injustice “systemic” at this moment in American history is to argue that the power of the government (“in other words, of the people,” to quote the Populists of yore) should be employed to redress that injustice. In good American pragmatic fashion, Heltzel lives with this assumption, but does not name it. I gather that Jim Wallis does the same, since (as Heltzel notes with ambivalence) Wallis more or less acted as a Democratic party adjunct during the 2008 election. In a strange way, progressive evangelicals remain reticent about making peace with the liberal state.

Perhaps federal protection for abortion rights, which Dobson’s warriors would see as part and parcel of the liberal state, helps to explain this reticence. Heltzel rightly calls out Dobson for casting the pro-life cause as the authentic heir to the abolitionist and civil rights movements. “The struggle to preserve unborn children,” Heltzel declares, “is different from advocating against more than two hundred years of slavery and one hundred years of segregation” (116). I could not agree more; but I would love to hear Heltzel explain why precisely Dobson is wrong. I understand the sensitive nature of the abortion issue for progressive evangelicals, but they are going to have to go there, sometime.

Finally, I was happy to see a book of this nature appearing from Yale University Press. In that sense, though, I found Mark Noll’s characteristically generous foreword to the book a little unnecessary. Granted, who wouldn’t welcome an endorsement from a historian of Noll’s gifts and stature? Still, such public torch passing in the pages of a university press book seems a tad insular (to use that loaded word again). Heltzel’s work can stand on its own.


Thanks for this fine review Steven. I have yet to read Heltzel's book but am looking forward to it in the near future. From your review it does appear that there are many things to appreciate about his book, thanks for drawing these out. I do have a few questions for Heltzel or other readers of this blog, however.

What percentage of the evangelical movement do African Americans need to make up for the movement to be identified as a bi-racial movement? My question stems from Heltzel’s explanation of 18th and 19th century American Evangelicalism (as described in the fourth paragraph of your review) as a bi-racial phenomenon. This description seems odd to me, and, I think, needs further exploration and perhaps even reconfiguring.

My understanding is that Christian outreach to slaves (I'm thinking of Thomas Bray in the 18th century, for example) and subversive abolition activity by evangelicals contributed to a good number of African Americans converting to Christianity, some of whom converted to the evangelical stripe of Christianity. Thus, even though African Americans converted to Christianity, not all were of the evangelical stripe. Additionally, the number of African Americans within the movement were still quite low when compared to the number of white participants within the entire movement. Also, I have never read (or heard) the evangelical movement (as a whole) in America in the 18th and 19th centuries described as racially inclusive. The picture that has emerged (when discussing the issue of race) through my reading is a movement that showed glimpses of being racially inclusive but on the whole was a movement marked by prejudice and segregation.

Second question: are African Americans evangelicals? Again, my understanding is that in most Protestant denominations during the 19th century, African Americans set up, either willingly or coercively, independent churches. And most African-American Christians, while fitting the definition of Evangelicalism, have resisted identifying with the movement. Thus, it seems strange to identify them as evangelicals if they do not self-identify with the movement or reject the label “evangelical” entirely.



Popular Posts