Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

The Barack Obama-Rick Warren Fiasco

In case you are one of the few people (at least in the U.S.) who hasn’t heard, mega-church pastor Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.  It’s hard to tell who is angrier at the news:  For weeks a bored U.S. media has tried to claim that liberals and progressives (especially “the liberal blogosphere”) are angry over Obama’s cabinet choices.  The truth is that, while some of those choices have not made progressives happy (Gates as Sec. of Defense, Geithner as Treasury Secretary), the mood among liberals has not been one of anger, but of anxiety.  Progressives are nervous that Obama’s movements for change could be far less progressive than he seemed to claim in his campaign and far less than we would like to see.  But most of us are taking a wait and see attitude: He hasn’t even officially become president, yet.  If his policies are even reasonably progressive and successful, we’ll be happy. And none of us expects to get everything we want–and we know that the Bush years cannot be cleaned up overnight.  So, the media story of “angry liberals” is mostly fiction–until now.

Rick Warren, pastor of the huge mega-church, Saddleback Church, in Orange County, CA (and, nominally, at least, a Southern Baptist) has been a rising star of the Religious Right.  In ’04, he campaigned vigorously against Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), saying that Christians should not care about the Iraq war (!). The only “values” for Christian voters should be opposition to legal abortion, opposition to gay rights, especially same-sex marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and other “marriage like arrangements,” (which Warren compared to incest, bestiality, and child molestation), support for low taxes (??), and support for home schooling.  After the ’04 election, under his wife’s influence, Warren seemed to broaden his moral concerns to include preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS (Obama came to his church and spoke on this–with Warren receiving criticism for inviting a pro-choice politician to speak), the environment, racism, and stopping genocide in places like the Congo and, especially, Darfur (Warren wanted U.S. military intervention–though where we were to get the troops while stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, he never said!).

Because of his broadening agenda, people like my friend, ethicist Dave Gushee, began to list Warren as an “evangelical centrist,” rather than part of the evangelical right or left.  But Warren continued to prioritize making abortion illegal (even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother) and opposition to equal rights for LGBT persons.  He used his “Saddleback Forum” this past summer, asking both presidential candidates identical questions on live TV,  in a way that–temporarily, at least–helped John McCain by biased phrasing designed to restart the culture wars and shore up the Religious Right’s support for McCain.   (He also showed almost as little sensitivity as McCain to the plight of poor and working class people, suggesting that $250,000 annually did not make one rich!) That failed, but Saddleback and Warren were also major contributors to the successful campaign to pass California’s “Proposition 8” which rolled back the recent right to same-sex marriage in CA.  GLBT folks lost everywhere on November 4, the night that Obama won, and have been struggling to not feel excluded ever since–especially when Obama, who in other ways is the most gay-friendly president, yet, publicly shares Warren’s opposition to same-sex marriage (though not to civil unions or domestic partnerships).

So, the GLBT community (and allies like myself) are among those who are furious with Obama for inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration–despite the fact that the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, an African-American United Methodist minister who was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, is a progressive icon, and long a champion of gay rights in both society and church, is giving the benediction.  The aging Lowery is not as well known in recent years as Warren and many people tune out by the time of the benediction.  If the two prayers were reversed, many pro-gay folk might be willing to applaud Obama’s inclusivism rather than feel slapped in the face by the prominence of Warren in the program.

Progressive faith leaders are also hacked off.  Many of them risked much to help Obama get elected (I disapprove of campaigning by clergy for anyone!) or, at least, risked much in countering the many spurious smears of the Right toward Obama during the campaign.  They see Warren as a “friendlier James Dobson” and feel very slighted.

But not all the criticism of this move comes from the Left.  Pro-life groups are furious with Warren for ACCEPTING Obama’s invitation.  They believe Warren, in broadening his moral agenda, has been too lukewarm in his pro-life work recently.  “Pallin’ around with pro-abortionists” (as the governor of Alaska might phrase it) makes them furious.  Many in the Religious Right see Obama’s election as a moral disaster and for one of their own to pray at the inauguration is infuriating–a reaction similar to the one Billy Graham received in January of ’93 for participating in the inauguration of Pres. Bill Clinton.

What to make of all this?  Count me among those on the left who are angry at this choice–with some reservations.  On the one hand, I love the way Obama reaches out to his adversaries.  It is part of following Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies.  Throughout his public life, Obama has sought to engage those with whom he disagrees–and has pushed for progressives and Democrats to engage even conservative evangelicals, not glossing over differences, but seeking common ground. Bravo, Barack.

On the other hand, I understand those who say that Obama does better in reaching out to adversaries than to longtime friends and allies.  In the wake of the Proposition 8 (and similar measures in other states) triumph of anti-gay forces, Obama needed a strong symbolic move that told GLBT folk and allies that he had not forgotten them and still planned on advancing much of their agenda (if not pushing for marriage equality).  He has appointed one openly-gay cabinet member and it is widely believed that  another, William White (a retired officer who is currently head of the Intrepid Museum), leads consideration for Secretary of the Navy. (Never believe these things until they are official, however. Like many environmentalists, I was thrilled in finding that Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) was the leading pick for Secretary of the Interior–and, then, yesterday it went to Sen. Salazar (D-CO), who HAS been an environmental lawyer and has done some strong green moves, but whose record is far more mixed than Grijalva’s!)

There were lots of ways to reach out to Rick Warren without inviting him to give the invocation.  And Obama could have even selected another white evangelical equally opposed to same-sex marriage (but, like Obama himself, more liberal on other gay rights) who does not send the same “slap in the face” signal to GLBT folks that Warren does: e.g. Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Richard Mouw, or recently-fired NAE publicly policy chief, Richard Cizik, who now supports civil unions and is reconsidering same sex marriage.  Obama could have chosen David P. Gushee, who is very traditional on gay rights (but for whom this is not a major issue), but, who is the head of Evangelicals for Human Rights, a major part of the National Religious Coalition to Abolish Torture–which would send a very different signal than having Rick Warren deliver the invocation.

Like most progressives, I’ll get over this. Obama can hardly take back the invitation, now.  If he quickly reverses “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on gays serving openly in the military ( a move now supported by most military leaders), sends Congress legislation to abolish the federal “Defense of Marriage Act,” etc., he’ll have the warm support of most GLBT folks and their allies like me.  But just as the victories for anti-gay legislation on November 4th introduced a sour note into the celebratory triumph of election night, the prominence of Rick Warren in the inauguration ceremonies dims the luster of a day that was supposed to usher in a new era of change.

I hope Obama learns how to continue to reach out to his adversaries, opponent, even enemies while, at the same time, doing better at not alienating friends and allies.  Yes, I am glad that Obama wants to get beyond the petty politics of revenge–the Bush years held far too much of that!  And, yes, I am glad that he has no plans to pander to the Left base of the Democratic Party the way that Bush (and the recent version of McCain) pandered to the Right base of the GOP.  But I just wish that it didn’t feel like progressives taken for granted by the incoming administration.  Say it isn’t so, Barack.

UPDATE:  Well, now the United Nations has just created a global treaty decriminalizing homosexuality, BUT THE U. S. HAS REFUSED TO SIGN! This, despite the fact that our very conservative Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that all “sodomy laws” (mostly outlawing same-sex acts, though some of those laws applied to heterosexuals–and even married couples) were unconstitutional.  So, Obama should act quickly to sign this in the new year.  It will be his actions rather than his symbols that define his presidency–but I still think inviting Warren was a mistake.

December 18, 2008 Posted by | abortion, Christianity, civil liberties, evangelicals, GLBT issues, homosexuality, politics | 26 Comments

Sign of the Times?

As I try to avoid worrying about Republicans allowing the Big Three automakers to die (probably leading to a global depression!) or what happens next in the Illinois scandal, I found this interesting piece of news.

Richard Cizik, for decades the Public Policy head of the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals, has resigned after an interview in which he admitted “shifting” on same-sex marriage. Cizik now says that he supports same-sex civil unions and is reconsidering civil marriage equality!  A recent study by Pew showed that younger evangelicals are also becoming more open to gay rights.  Cizik was previously the target of the Religious Right because of his push for U.S. evangelicals to become concerned about the environment (“creation care”), taking on those Religious Right leaders who believe either that the Second Coming removes all Christian concern for the environment or that global warming is a hoax or both.  Here, again, Cizik seems more representative of younger white evangelicals than most leaders of his generation.  Wow!

I’m sad that Cizik’s voice of sanity will be lost at NAE and hope that he continues to find ways to speak out to his fellow conservative Christians about these vital matters.

December 12, 2008 Posted by | ecology, evangelicals, fundamentalists, GLBT issues, global warming, homosexuality | 4 Comments

National Summit on Torture

Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul:

A National Summit on Torture

Dear Friends,


On September 11-12, 2008, Evangelicals for Human Rights, with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Mercer University, will host a national summit on torture in Atlanta, GA, on the campus of Mercer University.  Featuring some of the nation’s top thinkers and leaders in the anti-torture community, this conference is co-sponsored by an unprecedented group of organizations.
We invite you to be a part of this two day conference. We will examine the journey of the United States, since September 11, 2001, from a nation that championed human rights, albeit imperfectly, to a nation that publicly acknowledges and supports the use of torture.

Obviously, for people of faith, the journey does not end here. Speakers and participants will also explore the path of return to once again becoming a nation that leads the world in the protection of human rights.

Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul is organized and co-sponsored by individuals and groups who have sought to mobilize Americans and people of faith to oppose human rights violations in the struggle against terrorism. There will be moments of prayer and biblical reflection that embody the convictions of the sponsoring organizations, and the entire event will be infused with moral conviction drawn from religious tradition.

Conference speakers will reflect a variety of faith perspectives. The conference is open to all who will come. Our vision is that the conference will be a template for the kind of discourse, both faith-based and otherwise, that opens wide the doors for dialogue rather than closing them.

We invite you to be a part of this important conference. Register before June 1 for an early registration discount. Early registration fee is $99. Beginning June 1, registration fee will increase to $150.


Deadline for registration is August 1, 2008. Seating is limited.
Students’ Discount: Register before June 1 for an early student registration discount. Early student registration fee is $50. Beginning June 1, student registration will increase to $65.
For more Registration details click here: http://www.evangelicalsforhumanrights.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=72&Itemid=106

For more information, contact the Conference Coordinator:
Mary Head, Evangelicals for Human Rights
3001 Mercer University Drive, Day Hall 103
Atlanta, GA 30341
Questions that will be considered during the Conference:

  • What policy decisions led to torture?
  • How did the US military respond?
  • What does torture do to human beings?
  • What has the torture debate revealed about American Christianity?
  • What is really going on at Guantanamo Bay? How do we heal the (American) Christian relationship with the Muslim world?
  • What legislative efforts are being made to address torture?
  • How do Christians break free from cultural captivity?
  • What are younger thinkers noticing about this cultural moment that others are missing?
  • How do we restore America’s leadership in protecting human rights?


Current Co-Sponsors include:
Mercer University, Evangelicals for Human Rights, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the Center for Victims of Torture, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Evangelicals for Social Action, Faith and the City, Faith in Public Life, Morehouse College, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, No 2 Torture, and Sojourners.

Key Speakers include:
Katie Barge,  Elizabeth Bounds, Lawrence Carter, John Chandler, Richard Cizik, Mark P. Denbeaux, Pete Dross, Karen J. Greenberg, David P. Gushee, Linda Gustitus, Gita Gutierrez, Jeanne Herrick-Stare, Scott Horton, George Hunsinger, Rear Admiral D. John Hutson (Ret. USN), Cheryl Bridges Johns, Doug Johnson, Cathleen Kaveny, Richard Killmer, Rick Love, Denise Massey, Elissa Massimino, Matt Norman, Michael Peppard, Kathryn Reklis, Stephen Rickard, Samuel Rodriguez, Andy Saperstein, Ronald J. Sider, Glen H. Stassen, Natalie Wigg-Stevenson, Tyler Wigg Stevenson, Asante Todd, Brian Walt, and Thomas Wilner.

Envision 08

Another exciting event that is happening this summer is Envision, a conference which will be held at Princeton University, June 8-10. Sixty leading scholars, artists, activists, and pastors will represent a broad array of theological perspectives, all focused on one thing: Christian Engagement in the Public Square. EHR is co-sponsoring this event, and as part of EHR’s network, you can attend this conference for a discounted fee of $149 by entering “EHR” or “David Gushee.” The regular registration $249. For more information on Envision 08 and to register, go to www.ev08.org.

We hope you can join us.

David P. Gushee

President, EHR

June 1, 2008 Posted by | evangelicals, human rights., just peacemaking, progressive faith, torture, U.S. politics | 1 Comment

The Evangelical Swing Vote

Here is a major story being ignored by the press and pundits or being misunderstood by them.  Christine Wicker shows that Democrats can win the majority of American evangelicals by being “moderately pious” (her words–I would prefer to say they should advance a moral vision and, if they are people of faith themselves, let it show without making it an implied reason to vote for them; if they are not people of faith, they should let their respect for such be shown) and by emphasizing healthcare, jobs, and clean energy.

I largely agree with this perspective. Wicker’s data comes from evangelicals themselves (as reported in Christianity Today no less!), but I think she underestimates evangelicals in some respects. She suggests that Democrats downplay the war in Iraq because no one knows what to do about it. Wrong. That led to failure in ’04.  68% of Americans want the troops home within 6 months (and 85% of Democrats want this). There is no reason to think that evangelical Christians, who must, at least on some level, know that peacemaking is supposed to be a major Christian concern, are not part of that 68%.  Democrats should be honest in saying that some chaos will probably follow–as it will whenever we leave Iraq.

Evangelicals are also interested in stopping the spread of AIDS, in the environment, in ending poverty, in stopping human rights abuses at home and abroad.  We don’t need to short change them on this.  Neither the Religious Right, nor the Southern Baptist Convention speaks for the majority of “born again” Christians in the U.S.  It’s time we woke the press up to this–and long past time we woke up Democrats to this.

As an Anabaptist-leaning Baptist, I am never sure whether or not to call myself “evangelical.” Like the late John Howard Yoder, I think it depends on the definition and I do not fight it when others put me in the category. I don’t fit well in the Evangelical Subculture (with a capital E) as I found when I taught at Fuller Theological Seminary (but that could have just been my reaction to Southern California). But I can affirm the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds (although my tradition is against creedalism) with no finger crossing and only a few mentle footnotes. I was converted and am evangelistic and Scripture (with Jesus Christ as the interpretive key) is my final authority in all matters of faith and practice.  That seems to be what most people mean by “evangelical.” It’s not a sufficient definition of my faith (Where is discipleship? Where is justice? Peacemaking? Liberty of Conscience?), but it is certainly part of it. 

So, I hope evangelicals continue to break with the Religious Right, not to form a Religious Left voting bloc, but to be an independent voice–a swing vote that is courted by serious moral politicians from all parties, but whose ultimate allegiance is to God in Christ and the Rule of God.

May 16, 2008 Posted by | evangelicals, U.S. politics | Comments Off on The Evangelical Swing Vote

Book Review: Thy Kingdom Come

Continuing my reviews of “big picture” books I read during my blogging hiatus, I come to Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America by Randall Balmer. I had wanted to read this since it was published in early 2006 and I heard Balmer interviewed on Bruce Prescott’s Oklahoma-based radio show, “Religious Talk.”  Subtitled, “An Evangelical’s Lament,” Thy Kingdom Come is just that, a lament by a lifelong U.S. evangelical Christian of the way that the white evangelical subculture has become captive to the political rightwing.

Balmer is now an ordained Episcopal priest, but he was raised in the Evangelical Free Church, a denomination begun by Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th C. that was formed around Pietist impulses and with a low-church, congregational polity similar to my own Baptist background.  He is a graduate of Trinity College (Now Trinity International University), which, along with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, is a major influential institution among U.S. white evangelicals.  Balmer, who has a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, has for many years taught American religious history at Barnard College (Columbia University) in New York, where he has concentrated on changes in white evangelicals and on the intersection of faith and politics. (His latest book, which I have yet to read, is God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the U.S. Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. He is planning a book on Jimmy Carter.)

Thy Kingdom Come shows the dangers of the Religious Right in great detail. The chapter, “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?” made me very sad since it accurately described the role of my tradition, the Baptists, in creating and defending the U.S. tradition of religious liberty and church-state separation–a proud tradition. But, as Balmer shows, that tradition has been abandoned by most Southern Baptists, who now work to overturn it and at least turn the U.S. govt. into an institution that favors (evangelical) Christianity and gives it all kinds of legal privileges (while making those of other faiths or no faith into 2nd class citizens) and, in some cases, actually tries to promote a theocracy. 

Balmer holds out some hope at the end as he notes that fissures have begun among white evangelicals over environmentalism or “creation care.”  The Right thinks the very notion of care for the environment is a New Age plot, but more white evangelicals disagree.  This book was written in 2005. Since then, those fissures have grown into real cracks. After years of siding with those who call global warming a hoax, recently even the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution repenting of this stance and urging action to slow and reverse catastrophic climate change.  Most recently, the Baptist Center for Ethics (which is associated more with centrist and progressive Baptists than with the Right) composed a document urging the U.S. Senate to pass the strongest possible bill on climate change. The document was signed by 140 Baptist leaders from around the nation and from several different Baptist denominations.  Other parts of the evangelical community are taking similar actions, despite continued opposition from leaders of the Religious Right.

I disagree with those who claim that the Religious Right’s power was broken in 2006 with the deaths of Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy and the 2006 mid-term elections. As Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Baptists repeatedly says, the death of the Religious Right has been announced repeatedly since it first arose in the late 1970s and, like in a zombie movie, it just keeps rising from the grave.  But it is true that there have been far more cracks and fissures in the Religious Right coalition since Balmer wrote Thy Kingdom Come.  We have a seen a resurgence in the Religious Left and the Religious Center (including the Evangelical Left and Center), along with continued increase in American religious pluralism. Plus, largely in reaction to the Right, we have seen a slew of bestselling books by “angry atheists” and a reassertion of the values of secularism. (I believe that govt. should be secular. Whether or not society is secular is up to the free choice of the people. If persons of any particular faith cannot persuade members of society to faith, they have no right to ask for government aid in the matter.)

So, I think the immediate threat is less grave than when Balmer wrote this book. But that could change at any minute and the dimensions of the threat, to both vibrant Christianity and the American experiment, are real. This is a very important book well worth reading.  Go to your bookstore or library today.

May 1, 2008 Posted by | church-state separation, evangelicals, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Mercer Ethicist Dave Gushee on U.S. Evangelicals in Politics

David P. Gushee is a friend of mine who is somewhat more conservative than I am theologically and politically–but not in any extreme sense. We are almost the same age (I’m slightly younger) and Dave is, like me, a former student of Glen Stassen.  Dave then did a Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary under Larry Rasmussen, a Lutheran expert on Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer–as well as ecological ethics and the role of Scripture in Ethics.  Dave tried to work with the fundamentalist Mohler administration at post-takeover SBTS before needing to leave for several years at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.  Now, he has recently joined the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University– a context in which I am sure he’ll thrive.

Dave shares my commitment to gender equality, but does not share my views on GLBT inclusion. (I’ll keep working on him.) He shares my strong commitment to Jewish-Christian dialogue and is beginning to add Christian-Muslim dialogue to that. He is deeply committed to a 2-state solution in Palestine-Israel for Middle East peace although I sometimes think he is too trusting of the Israeli government’s view of things. But Dave is definitely NOT one of those knee-jerk evangelicals who think the gov. of Israel can do no wrong and who support wiping out Palestinians or permanent occupation of the territories.

Dave is a Just War Theorist, unfortunately, but he is an honest and strict JWTer who opposed the Iraq war and opposes the Bush doctrine of preemption.

Dave is deeply committed to human rights, and started Evangelicals for Human Rights to work on abolitioning torture, beginning with the U.S. 

Dave and I mostly agree on church-state matters, although I think I am slightly more of a separationist than he is.  But in a very important article in USA Today, Dave takes most U.S. evangelicals to task for the way they have turned the majority of U.S. evangelicalism into a religious wing of the Republican Party–something that should not be done with ANY Party or ideology.  Read Dave and show this to other U.S. evangelicals.  It’s that important. The integrity of the church in these United States is at stake.

January 14, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, church-state separation, citizenship, evangelicals, U.S. politics | 5 Comments

The Fragmentation of the Religious Right?

The New York Times has published a lengthy article called “The Evangelical Crack-Up” which you can read here.  Thanks to Melissa Rogers for calling it to my attention.  I have noted the trends outlined in that article before:  Most of the prominent leaders of the Religious Right are either retiring or dying off; congregations are firing pastors who overly politicize their pulpits; younger evangelical leaders are returning to a broader moral agenda than just anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality–an agenda that includes concern for the poor, the environment, torture and human rights–and sometimes even opposition to war. 

This fragmentation of the Religious Right comes at a time of resurgent militism among some atheists and secularists (e.g., the spate of bestselling books arguing that religious faith is the root of all that is wrong with the world), but also at a time of resurgence for the evangelical left and center, of resurgence for the broader Christian center and left, and of increasing religious pluralism.  But the Religious Right has been counted dead and gone and its funeral held prematurely far too many times since 1980.  In the late ’90s prominent members of the RR itself were pronouncing it dead–such as when political columnist Cal Thomas and fundamentalist pastor Ed DobsonI(no relation to psychologist and Focus on the Family founder, James Dobson),both founding members and prominent leaders of the Moral Majority. co-wrote Blinded By Might:  Why the Religious Right Cannot Save AmericaThe authors detailed the ways in which fundamentalist Protestantism had lost its soul by becoming an adjunct of the Republican Party and adopting the tactics of cutthroath politics.  Dobson stood by what he said–dropping out of the Religious Right and concentrating on his pastorate–and on the poor.  By contrast, Cal Thomas’ relapsed almost immediately–rallying the fundamentalist troops to support the presidential candidacy of George W. Bush and uncritically supporting him since then. 

So, we have to approach the current disharmony in the Religious Right with caution.  It is too soon to count the likes of James Dobson as a spent political force or to relegate fundamentalism to the cultural backwaters it occupied from the 1920s to the 1970s.   It is FAR too early to pronounce the triumph of the Christian Left or even the Evangelical Left (much less an interfaith Religious Left) or even center.  And the growth of the “angry atheists” like Hitchens and Dawkins could easily lead to a backlash that renews the Religious Right.  Theocratic and Christian nationalist forces are still a significant force–and the current fragmentation may only last one presidential election cycle (or maybe not even that–many think that if Sen. Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic Party nominee, she will reunite the Right against her–even if the GOP nominee is Rudy Guiliani)–as it did from ’96 to 2000.

Still, this current fragmentation DOES offer an opportunity for Christians and other persons of faith with a progressive agenda to change the political debate.  There are many signs that this opportunity is not being wasted: I have highlighted before the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and its evangelical counterpart, Evangelicals for Human Rights.  Now, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action is leading a group of U.S. evangelicals to pressure the U.S. to do more to support a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis–rather than the uncritical support for Israel that is typical of many evangelicals.  The “Green Christian” movement of “Creation Care” is growing rapidly. 

It remains true that the majority of U.S. evangelicals would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned and/or elective abortions made illegal.  My own stance of support for the legal right to abortions while working to eliminate the causes that lead women to seek abortions is controversial–as a perusal of the comments on this blog under abortion posts will show.  Mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s invitation for Sen. Barack Obama, known to be pro-choice, to join his conference on ways to combat the AIDS pandemic was widely criticized by other white evangelical leaders.  It is also true that the majority of U.S. evangelicals continue to believe that sexual orientation is a choice, not a given, and to believe that all same-sex behavior is immoral. Again, my welcoming and affirming stance is not widely shared–not even by progressive evangelicals such as Ron Sider or Jim Wallis.

But the message that Sider and Wallis have been shouting for years–that abortion and “homosexuality” are not the only moral issues worth addressing, seems finally to be falling on fertile ground.  I find that to be very hopeful.

November 2, 2007 Posted by | evangelicals, fundamentalists | Comments Off on The Fragmentation of the Religious Right?

Falwell’s Passing: End of an Era?

Rev. Jerry Falwell (1933-2007), Senior Pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA, founder of the Moral Majority (a conservative Christian organization which mobilized Christians for conservative politics), founder of Liberty University (grown from a Bible college to a very large conservative Christian university), and major architect of the Religious Right as a political force in the U.S., died yesterday at the age of 73.  People are assessing his legacy already in terms of lavish praise or deep condemnation.  Regular readers of this blog are likely to guess easily that I was no fan of Rev. Falwell, but may be surprised to know that I thought of him only with mild distaste until 1984.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Falwell was a rabid segregationist, but I was unaware of this until many years later.  I first became aware of him as a teen in the 1970s (when I was only tenuously connected to church life and still struggling back from a stint of agnosticism on the road to my conversion to Christ) when he was a spokesperson against pornography.  I had some sympathy with that campaign (as much sympathy as a hormone-raging, not-yet-converted, teenaged boy CAN have with such a campaign!)  and it successfully got the 7-11 chain of convenience stores to stop selling Playboy, Penthouse, & related skin-magazines in displays where children could see and even purchase them. 

Next, I noticed Falwell support singer/actress Anita Bryant’s campaign against “homosexual teachers in public schools.” Even though (at the time) I considered gay/lesbian sex to be always and everywhere sinful, I had much less sympathy with this campaign.  I was aware, even then, that almost all child molestation is done by heterosexuals and saw little evidence for massive “recruiting” of students on the part of gay or lesbian teachers. (Anita Bryant claimed that because “homosexuals” cannot reproduce, they must recruit, and were deliberately trying to subvert innocent schoolchildren.) I thought this to be a witch hunt and regarded it with distaste. I also regarded television evangelism, then and now, with distaste and believed, then and now, that televising church services as entertainment subverted worship.  To this day, I have never watched an entire church service on television, nor ever belonged to any church that televised their services.  So, I regarded Falwell as an annoying cultural annoyance in the early days, nothing more.

I did notice when he founded the Moral Majority in 1979 and when he became a major player in the campaign against legalized abortion.  But abortion was not considered a major issue in the 1970s.  People supported its legality or didn’t, but this did not fall along predictable religious or political lines.   Very conservative Christian leaders in the 1970s, including W.A. Criswell, Norman Geisler, and Carl F. H. Henry, while opposing the morality of most abortions, expressed support for Roe v. Wade in varying degrees. The Southern Baptist Convention passed 2 resolutions in the 1970s that spelled out a series of instances in which abortion might be the lesser of evils.  For most of us, this was simply not a major issue.  When Falwell began to join his voice to the campaign to overturn Roe, I remember not being sure where I stood.  I did not assume that just because I considered Jerry Falwell to be a loudmouth stereotypical fundamentalist evangelist that he was automatically wrong about this or any other issue.

 I was far more concerned that he was mobilizing conservative Christians to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 against Jimmy Carter, whom I then and now, admired greatly.  I thought such “get out the vote” tactics violated at least the spirit of church-state separation and I believed it wrong for churches or pastors to endorse particular candidates for office.  I still do.  When I have been a pastor I made sure my car had no political bumper stickers and no political signs in my yard. I would discuss issues from the pulpit with political implications, but NEVER endorse any particular candidate for office, nor even let my own preference be known. I took the same attitude in the classroom.  So strongly do I feel about this, I would never vote for anyone who is an ordained minister unless and until they resigned their ordination first–and when Pat Robertson resigned his ordination before running for president, I praised the move publicly (although I opposed his candidacy on other grounds).  Christianity has political dimensions, but is NOT to be a partisan tool for any particular party or candidate.

I did not move from this initial mild distaste to firm opposition to most everything Falwell stood for until 1983:  When Jerry Falwell claimed that the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa were nothing more than a front for Communism, denounced Anglican Bishop (not yet Archbishop) Desmond Tutu as a “phony,” and urged the Reagan administration to continue its support for the white government of apartheid South Africa! In my final year of college, at the time, and already applying to become a seminary student,  I was horrified.  I immediately looked up Tutu’s mailing address (not as easy to do in those pre-internet days) and personally wrote him a letter of support. Knowing that other Christians were often confused about Baptist polity (and not knowing how many Baptists were in South Africa), I explained that Falwell was not a part, then, of any major Baptist denomination, and did not speak for the rest of us. I went through the whole “liberty of conscience” explanation that Baptists do not have official spokespeople in the same way that others do.  But I was horrified that ANY Christian could say what he did and reaffirmed my prayers and support for Bishop Tutu’s work. I joined an organization working to change U.S. policy toward South Africa the very next day–and became one of Falwell’s harshest critics ever after.

But now Falwell is dead.  Is the dominance of the Religious Right over U.S. politics also over? I am not quick to conclude this. Many people wrote it off in the late ’90s, but the Religious Right came roaring back during George W. Bush’s campaign in 2000 and was a major force in the 2004 campaign.  It faltered in 2006 and has had several problems since then, but has made far too many comebacks before to be counted out, now.  And Falwell had not been dominant in the Religious Right for a few years, though still enough of a powerbroker that Sen. John McCain (R), who once called him an “agent of intolerance,” had to mend fences with Falwell in order to run for the GOP presidential nomination this year.

But wait a minute.  Falwell is dead and the Moral Majority disbanded.  Pat Robertson, though still making outrageous statements every month or so on the syndicated 700 Club TV show (which has millions of viewers worldwide, sad to say), is 76 and no longer head of the Christian Coalition, which has lost members and influence in recent years.  Donald E. Wildmon, who founded the National Federation for Decency in 1977 (renamed the American Family Association in 1987) , and led the fight against pornography and obscenity in the arts, is 69 and has faded from prominence.  James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family (whose books advise parents to have young sons shower with fathers to prevent them from “becoming homosexual!”) is 71.  As Falwell’s and Robertson’s political influence has waned, Dobson’s has grown, but has looked weak during the current election cycle.

D. James Kennedy, Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in South Florida, is 77 and, after a heart attack, has retired from politics and may soon retire from his pastorate.  Gary Bauer, past president of the Family Research Council, is 61 and seems to be waning in influence, although still strong in conservative circles.

 So, the generation that brought us the rise of the Religious Right in 1979 is passing from the scene.  There are younger leaders, like R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who has a prominent radio show, blog, and writes influential works in conservative evangelical circles.  But there seem few others who have Mohler’s audience and he does not wield near the political clout that Falwell and company did at a similar age.  One source of leadership for the Religious Right in the past came from the pastors of influential mega-churches, but many of the younger such pastors, like Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church, while still conservative on issues like abortion, are progressive on other political issues, like the environment and the campaign against torture.  Some mega-church pastors, like Brian MacLaren, are progressive on a wide range of peace and justice issues and considered “liberal” by members of the Religious Right.

So, as the Falwell generation of Religious Right leaders pass from the scene, there seems, at least, to be a power vacuum for their constituencies.  This could be good news for progressive faith leaders, including progressive evangelical leaders, but their leadership seems only in marginally better condition. And the numerical and financial health of those denominations once considered “mainstream” in America (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., Disciples of Christ) continues to decline. So, it is not clear whether or not the forces of progressive faith–and those who consider the Rule of God to transcend political loyalties–can capitalize on this opportunity for resurgence.

I leave it for others to judge Falwell’s personal legacy for good or ill.  I did not like the man, but must join all the church in offering his family and church my prayers in this time of grief.

May 16, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, church-state separation, evangelicals, Obituaries, theology, U.S. politics | 4 Comments

Conservative Evangelical Dialogue Partners

Previously, I posted a blog on “My Favorite Liberal Theologians” in which I listed the top 10 theological liberals whom I consider my “essential dialogue partners.” I promised a follow-up on evangelicals, but it has proven tougher because, broadly speaking, I am part of the evangelical tradition and because the parameters of “evangelical” are not all that clear. Liberals, who begin with human experience and intentionally adjust Christian doctrine to modern knowlege, are easier to define. Originally, the term  “evangelical” meant “Protestant,” then “Lutheran,” (in some European countries, “Evangelical” [Lutheran] is still contrasted to “Reformed”), then referred to the 18th C. renewal movements which became Pietism in Germany, the Wesley-Whitefield revivals in Britain, and the “Great Awakening,” in the U.S. Beginning in the late 19th C., “evangelical” began to take on the meaning of “conservative Protestant,” but there were also “Evangelical Liberals.” Here, I have in mind that part of conservative Protestantism that essentially grew out of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies. Today, I list my essential dialogue partners among the conservative end of the evangelical spectrum. A follow up blog will list my dialogue partners among the wider evangelical spectrum. My continuing series’ on mentors and heroes will name/describe my theological “home,” whereas these posts, like my post on theological liberals, describe outside conversation partners. I think I will also do posts on essential dialogue partners among Catholics (liberal and conservative), Orthodox, Jewish thinkers, and (possibly) philosophical skeptics. Perhaps this is a sign that I am more eclectic than an original, creative thinker, but I find it impossible to do theology (even theological ethics, my specialization) except in conversation with others, including others who present strong challenges to my perspectives.

But no one can dialogue with everyone. Like others, I usually ignore voices that I don’t find helpful in some fashion. Thus, although the broadly Reformed tradition informs me (Baptists have both Puritan and Anabaptist roots; I draw more from the latter, but try not to ignore the former), I do not find its scholastic forms at all helpful: I have long since stopped reading anything from Kuyper or Dooyeweerd, nor the “Old Princeton school” of Hodge, Warfield, & Machen, nor their Baptist disciples: Boyce, Manley, John Piper, or Al Mohler. If you find them helpful, fine, but I cannot stomach them at all.

  • Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003) represents the best of the post WWII evangelical renewal in the U.S. His The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) pushed his fellow conservatives out of their apolitical slumbers–although an Eisenhower Republicanism was the most social conscience he allowed. An adult convert and former newspaperman, Henry went on to earn 2 doctorates (Th.D., Northern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ph.D., Boston University), and after teaching at his alma mater (NBTS), went on to help found Fuller Theological Seminary as an institution both ecumenical and evangelical (though it eventually defined the latter term more broadly than Henry desired) and then became founding editor of Christianity Today, so Henry’s influence cannot be underestimated. Henry represents what I call “evangelical rationalism,” a position whose strength is to push evangelicals away from a fear of reason, but whose weakness is a theology that has little place for mystery–either in a pentacostal or a sacramental direction. He also epitomizes evangelical obsession with epistemology–writing not a systematics or dogmatics, but 8 volumes defining and defending biblical inerrancy! I have read all of these volumes (indeed, when Henry came as a visiting prof. to SBTS–back when my alma mater was allegedly full of liberals!–, I had to nurse several conservative students through his God, Revelation, and Authority, who had gone to class expecting sermon outlines instead of serious apologetics), and they have many strengths, including more interaction with non-evangelical theologians than was common during the period Henry wrote. I have to say that I did not feel that Henry always understood his opponents like Barth, Brunner, or even Pannenberg, try though he did. I find Henry’s overall approach sterile and lifeless, but his shadow is so large in American Christianity that I would be a fool not to read and interact with his work. But my biggest criticism of Henry is that he was a poor exegete. For me, that is a damning statement. No one who spends 8 volumes defending a particular view of biblical authority should be as inept at close readings of the biblical texts themselves! (This was true not only in his writings, but on the two occasions when I heard him preach.)
  • F. F. Bruce (1910-1990), by contrast was a first rate exegete and set new standards for evangelical biblical scholarship. I do not agree with him always (his defense of the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, for instance, remains unconvincing), but his love for Scripture and for the gospel showed in his careful handling of texts. He is a great example of how an education in the classics can prepare one for a career in biblical studies. I also appreciate his commitment to teaching in religious studies departments in secular universities rather than in confessional seminaries. (This partly reflects his “Open Brethren” tradition which has no ordained or paid clergy, and whose congregations are led by scholarly laity. Bruce preached and taught in Brethren pulpits–and those of other Christian denominations–throughout his career.) Bruce’s generous spirit toward “liberal” Christians, including Rudolf Bultmann, was also rare for his day. He showed by precept and example that one could be orthodox without launching a war on believers from other traditions.
  • Bernard Ramm(1916-1992) is another conservative evangelical whose works I greatly appreciate. His early writings included textbooks on the basics of biblical interpretation, studies on sin and soteriology, and attempts to reconcile science and theology, eventually adopting theistic evolution. His later works bear the impact of Karl Barth in a very healthy way. I also appreciate the way Ramm considered himself always a Baptist, but never wedded to any one Baptist convention. During his career, he taught at institutions related to the American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Baptist General Conference, Canadian Baptists, and Conservative Baptist Association–and did not see this as “switching denominations.” My only criticism is that Ramm saw Baptists as one branch of the Reformed tradition–period. Had he interacted with the Anabaptist dimensions of our heritage, what changes would that have made to his theology–particularly his lifelong attempts to wed head, heart, and life.
  • The Australian Anglican, Leon Morris(1914-2006), was another sound exegete and one whose mild Calvinism tried to face seriously the challenges to that tradition from within it. I especially appreciate the way his later writings showed how he learned from criticisms of earlier work. For instance, early on Morris defended substitutionary atonement, and especially propitiation, as the only viable atonement theory. Later, while still insisting on the validity of these dimensions, Morris recognized that the cross event was bigger than any one atonement theory and attempted to incorporate other elements–relating each perspective to particular biblical texts.
  • Craig L. Blomberg, Distinguished Prof. of New Testament at Denver Seminary, was my Greek and NT teacher and academic advisor at Palm Beach Atlantic College in South Florida before we both left for other areas. I learned huge amounts from Craig and became friends with both Fran and Craig. I had already begun learning Greek from my home pastor, but Craig added more, reinforced my love for close exegetical work, and introduced me to liberation theologies–evangelical and otherwise. I was one of the few students at this conservative Baptist college who was (even then) more liberal than Craig, not holding to inerrancy (not even his nuanced version–and I delighted in citing his own teacher, I. Howard Marshall, on my side!) and defending evangelical feminism against his own complementarianism. (Ironically, in practice, Craig & Fran’s marriage always looked perfectly egalitarian to me and these days Fran is a missions director on staff at a church in Denver!) But Craig never tried to make cookie cutter followers of his students; he wanted followers of Jesus Christ, instead. When I have been in the classroom, much of my teaching methods came from Craig–including his habit of assigning pairs of textbooks, one more “liberal” than his view and one more “conservative” than the approach he was taking. How many evangelical scholars, especially in the U.S., have co-written a dialogue book with a Morman theologian? Craig Blomberg has–and that kind of “critical openess” pervades his work. He has chided fellow evangelicals for blanket condemnations of liberation theologies and of pacifism (though I have yet to convince him to become a pacifist). His recent work, Contagious Holiness, is an important corrective to Marcus Borg’s contention that Jesus’ meals with sinners show a lack of concern with holiness/purity, but that, instead, Jesus’ compassionate and inclusive table fellowship attempted to spread holiness.
  • George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982), who taught New Testament at Fuller Seminary, worked hard to bring North American evangelicals to an eschatology that did not involve dispensationalism. Ladd also sought to engage the “Biblical theology” movement and the challenges of the 2nd wave of the “quest for the historical Jesus.” He was unfairly attacked from both the right and the left.
  • George R. Beasley-Murray(1916-2000), British Baptist New Testament scholar who taught at Spurgeon’s College (twice, including a stint as Principal), the Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland (now the International Baptist Theological Seminary and moved to Prague, Czech Republic), and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Like Ladd, Beasley-Murray also worked in New Testament eschatology, though, being British, he wasn’t constantly engaging Dispensationalism! Beasley-Murray, another of my teachers, was attacked by conservatives because his strong defense of Mark 13 as going back to the historical Jesus involved his concluding that Jesus was mistaken about how soon the End would come. He translated Bultmann’s commentary on John, although his own 2-volume commentary on the same book found far more historical material. A truly amazing exegete and biblical theologian. See an excellent tribute here. As with Blomberg above, I almost listed Beasley-Murray as a mentor, rather than a dialogue partner. It was a close call, but both scholars are so identified with “Evangelicalism,” that I could not omit them here.
  • Donald Bloesch, a Reformed theologian from the conservative end of the Presbyterian Church, USA, attempts to reincorporate the pietist tradition into evangelical Reformed thought. Bloesch really sees the dangers to evangelical thought of Henry’s rationalism. Although he continues to use the term “inerrant,” for Scripture, he stretches that term considerably in his interaction with Barth and Brunner. See also here.
  • G. C. Berkouwer(1903-1996), the Dutch Reformed theologian and conservative Barthian. Berkouwer’s Holy Scripture rescues its authority from liberal neglect and from Protestant scholasticism. His defense of perseverance of the saints almost convinced this born and raised Arminian. For years the leading theologian at the Free University of Amsterdam, Berkouwer led the Gereformeede Kerken in Nederland (“The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands,” a conservative splinter group from the Dutch Reformed Church) to join the World Council of Churches, becoming one of the first evangelical denominations to unite with the mainstream conciliar ecumenical movement. His 14 volume Studies in Dogmatics, map out a “middle orthodoxy” which is a firm middle ground between fundamentalist rationalism and liberal flights of fancy.
  • Augustus H. Strong (1893-1921) may have been the most important evangelical Baptist theologian of the late 19th and early 20th C. President and Professor of Theology at Rochester Theological Seminary in upstate New York (now merged as Colgate Rochester Crozier Theological Seminary), Strong, converted as a college student under the preaching of Charles Finney, worked to reformulate Calvinist-Baptist thought for the modern era. He abandoned inerrancy as indefensible, and had a mild view of election. He came to embrace theistic evolution.
  • James Leo Garrett, Jr., Emeritus Professor of Theology at Southwestern Theological Seminary also taught church history and historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before returning to his native Texas. His new 2 volume Systematic Theology is an excellent, centrist, evangelical Baptist work–and notable for its historical interactions.

There are many others from the broader evangelical tradition and I will try to post on those dialogue partners in the near future.

December 6, 2006 Posted by | evangelicals, theology | 11 Comments

Patience on Essential Evangelicals

When I wrote a post on my “favorite liberal theologians” I promised a follow-up on essential evangelical theologians as dialogue partners. I haven’t forgotten, but it has been harder to nail down a list because I am at the left end of the evangelical spectrum and find more in common with more evangelicals than with liberals in theology–hard as that will be for some of my conservative critics to fathom. I have decided that I will need to break this into 2 posts: One on Conservative Evangelicals (e.g., Carl Henry) and one on Progressive Evangelicals (e.g., Stanley Grenz). I am not using the term “liberal evangelicals” because that could be confused with the once-familiar-but-now-obscure term “evangelical liberals” of the early 20th C. who were distinguished from the “modernist liberals.” These kinds of labels are always difficult calls.

Again, this upcoming post or two will not be ranking “most important” evangelicals in some kind of absolute sense, but simply which I find most important as dialogue partners. My “mentors” series continues to highlight mostly people who don’t fit easily into simple “liberal” or “evangelical” categories when viewed from the U.S. scene.

I should note for U.S. readers that the strong tie here between evangelical theology and rightwing politics is much rarer outside the U.S. In the U.K., for instance, a large plurality, if not majority, of evangelicals are Labor voters. In Canada, there seems very little link between religious affiliation and political allegiance. And so it goes.

AFTER the elections on Tuesday, I will also post some reflections that have been brewing in the back of my mind on Christianity and political theory and attitudes–connecting back to this blog’s “leveller” orientation.

November 3, 2006 Posted by | evangelicals, theology | Comments Off on Patience on Essential Evangelicals