The New Evangelical Social Engagement

By Seth Dowland

This is Part 1 in a two-part review of The New Evangelical Social Engagement, edited by Brian Steensland and Philip Goff (OUP, 2014). Phil Sinitiere will post Part 2 on March 13. 

The New Evangelical Social Engagement is confusing, in the best possible way. The essays in this book provide thoughtful treatments of a host of initiatives that have emerged among contemporary evangelicals, including environmentalism, international development, new monasticism, progressive pro-life activism, and interracial community-building. While the chapters share a focus on mostly young evangelicals who resist the conservative politics of the religious right, their internal diversity makes “new evangelical social engagement” a hard movement to characterize.  Furthermore, the authors approach their subjects from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, history, sociology, political science, ethics, and religious studies. After reading each chapter, I grew increasingly despondent about my ability to frame the book’s main points in a review short enough to post on the blog! But each chapter explored a story that complicated and deepened my understanding of contemporary evangelicalism. And so I’m confused—about what evangelicalism is, or where it’s heading, or what its adherents share—but in the best possible way.

Even so, I will highlight a few issues these essays raised. The introduction by Steensland and Goff, along with a strong reflective essay by Joel Carpenter, suggests that the new evangelical social engagement marks a departure from the immediate past and also shows continuity with the longer history of evangelicalism. Since the eighteenth century, restless evangelicals have been agitating for change. As Carpenter puts it, “old traits are forever creating new evangelicalisms.” New evangelicals have rejected the suburban megachurches that were themselves the products of a rethinking of how evangelicalism would spread. Even when evangelicals are making radical departures from the social conventions, politics, and church structures of their parents, they are acting in line with a long tradition of innovation that characterized their spiritual ancestors.

That innovation is proceeding in multiple and occasionally contradictory directions. This tension appeared most notably as I read the successive chapters by Daniel Williams and David Swartz, authors of important recent books on the Christian right and the evangelical left. Williams describes the tenuous political position of prolife progressive evangelicals, who are at once frustrated by the inconsistent prolife ethic of conservative evangelicals, who promote war and defend capital punishment, and disappointed by their normal political allies in the secular left, who seem content to describe abortion solely in the language of “women’s choice.” Lefty evangelicals’ prolife posture does not have a political home in contemporary America. In the next chapter, Swartz shows how some of the same impulses that drive progressive prolifers have caused evangelicals to take up the cause of human rights around the globe. The campaign for human rights and social justice has won support from both American political parties and has crossed longstanding divides separating conservative and liberal evangelicals. If Williams’ prolife progressives are political nomads, Swartz’s social justice crusaders have won wide support.

Other chapters point to the varying levels to which new evangelicals resist American cultural norms. Will Samson’s excellent chapter on the new monasticism shows how groups of radical Christians are cropping up around the country, dedicated to living together in “abandoned places of empire.” These new monastics shun megachurch culture, opting for ancient contemplative practices instead. They find in these ancient practices both deep rootedness and a source for social justice activism. Some of the people who found their way to these new monastic communities might have had their interest in social justice piqued by participation in evangelical college fellowships like Intervarsity, an organization that has increasingly tied the gospel to human rights. John Schmalzbauer’s superb study of IV demonstrates how the group’s triennial Urbana missions conference has raised evangelical students’ awareness of injustice and spurred many into action. A highlight of Urbana 2006 occurred when U2’s Bono appeared live via satellite to urge attendees in their Godly fight against injustice. The following speaker asked attendees to text their support for Bono’s ONE Campaign; Schmalzbauer reports that “cell phones lit up” in the holy sanctuary of the Edward Jones Dome. One can hardly imagine a less ancient practice than texting support for social justice.

The new social engagement is reshaping evangelicalism, and this volume opens new vistas. Yet the book underlines some continuities. Eminent political scientist John Green demonstrates that not everything is changing, as even young evangelicals remain more politically conservative than their secular counterparts. Likewise, reflective chapters by Carpenter, R. Stephen Warner, and Glen Harold Stassen situate new evangelical engagement in a long history of activism and reform. The malleability of evangelicalism is hardly a surprise, given that the movement is predicated on individual conversion and dependent on widely varying understandings of scripture. Yet these essays helpfully show how and why evangelicalism is transforming in the particular contexts of the twenty-first century, which include globalization, a frustration with religious right politics, and a suspicion of American empire. New evangelicals have reacted to these contexts in a variety of ways—and these essays open possibilities for exciting new scholarship.


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