Despite their long and vibrant tradition of social activism, evangelical political theology is apparently notable only because it is so stunted. At least, that’s how the story goes. Mark Noll made the point in his widely influential book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind when he suggested that while nineteenth century evangelicals were “thinking about politics,” their work was “rarely theoretical as such.” More recently, Eric Gregory reaffirmed the claim in his entry on the subject in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology.
The complaint now has such a distinguished history that it is almost itself a kind of tradition. Twenty years before Noll’s book, Derek Tidball made a parallel argument that evangelical activism needed a more academic infrastructure. Twenty-five years before that, Carl Henry kicked off the evangelical revival by suggesting in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism that “we have not applied the genius of our position constructively to those problems which press most for a solution in a social way.” And that only thirtyseven years after Charles Erdman suggested in The Fundamentals—which unfortunately today are more often dismissed than read—that “These social teachings of the Gospel need a new emphasis today by those who accept the whole Gospel.”
It is, however, important to remember that the legacy of anxiety about evangelicalism’s anemic political theology is primarily limited to white evangelicals. The black theological tradition in North America has distinctively political concerns, and while the relationship between black Protestants and evangelicals is an ambiguous one, we should not preemptively draw the evangelical boundary such that their witness is excluded from its confines.
Still, while evangelicals have now raised the complaint’s status to “perfunctory essay opener,” the ongoing perception of evangelicalism’s weakness raises questions about whether the emergence of an evangelical tradition of political theology is even possible—and what sort of conditions need to arise for evangelicals to feel confident about starting their essays with a new opening line.
Meanwhile, the lack of confidence in evangelicalism’s political theology is palpable well beyond the walls of the academy. For many younger evangelicals, the question has an existential dimension. Frustrated by the reductionistic accounts of politics that permeate our public square, many younger evangelicals set out to find deeper, more theoretical underpinnings to our political intuitions.
But that is simply an expression of the problem: These days, young evangelicals’ introduction to political theology takes the form of a quest rather than reception. As Calvin Seerveld put it in the Spring 2012 edition of Comment, tradition “is the structured transaction of passing on wonts— that is, customs or habits— from practiced to inexperienced human hands.” It is precisely that transaction that evangelicals struggle to experience. Indeed, for a tradition of evangelical political theology to emerge, it would have to overcome pressures from our institutional fragmentation and lingering reductionism on key doctrines.
Institutional Fragmentation And Political Theology
To raise the question about the tradition of evangelical political theology is, of course, to barrel into the definitional minefield that has plagued the movement since its beginning. “Evangelicals,” in one sense, are no more diverse than Catholics or mainline Protestants— despite the stories many evangelicals like to tell about the mythic lands of unity and agreement beyond the ecclesiastical walls. Yet unlike those identities, evangelicals are an institutionally diverse movement, spread across publishing houses and parachurch institutions and traversing denominational boundaries. Such institutional fragmentation necessarily makes any sociological or cultural definition of “evangelical” a fluid one, which is partly why the quarrel over boundaries is ongoing.
Yet despite this institutional diversity, a consensus has formed around understanding “evangelicals” through the lens of David Bebbington’s now famous quadrilateral: Bible, cross, conversion, and activism. While such emphases don’t preclude adherence to creeds or confessions, they do provide a sense of commonality that is recognizable. Evangelical Baptists read the Anglicans J.I. Packer and John Stott and found kindred spirits, despite their doctrinal disagreements.
But, as Fred Sanders points out in The Deep Things of God, theological emphases are reduced to slogans when they are removed from the broader backdrop of Trinitarian theology. When that happens, every bit of energy has to be poured into maintaining the emphases, because they are all a movement has left. While Sanders is focused on the loss of the broader theological framework, I’d contend that a similar worry can be raised about holding on to the broader context of the church. “Bible, cross, conversion, and activism” are doctrinal commitments. But they are also what we might call “boundary markers,” traits that allow evangelicals to recognize each other as such. When those emphases begin to crowd out the institutional church, then evangelical political theology will invariably suffer.
I speak, I should note, of the actual existence of the church as an institutional reality, rather than the set of doctrinal commitments that cluster under the heading “ecclesiology.” As Baptist (and evangelical!) theologian Russell Moore suggests, “A consideration of evangelical ecclesiology will also necessitate a reconsideration of the lingering parachurch mentality of the evangelical coalition itself.” It would do that, yes. But beyond reconsidering the doctrine, the reformation of evangelical churches themselves would help the evangelical emphases remain genuinely emphatic rather than totalizing or reductionistic.
An evangelical political theology, then, must emerge out of a preexisting institutional context. The church’s life together is the soil from which political theology springs, for the questions posed by living together make us attentive to the many ways in which our communal experience shapes our knowledge of God. In short, it helps us see that “politics” and theology are not so separate after all. While evangelicals have been attentive to the importance of experience in shaping our understanding of salvation and sanctification—Wesley’s warm heart and Edwards’s religious affections both make space for this—we have often been reluctant about identifying that concern within a communal context. A greater emphasis on communal life would go a long way toward closing the unfortunate gap between politics and theology.
The question is whether the gap between the lived experience of the church and the other institutional arenas where evangelicals gather uniquely hinders the work of constructing a political theology. Unlike the task of exegetical theology, political theology must proceed with an awareness of its own place and the traditions that shape it, for it is not only seeking to exegete a text given two thousand years ago, but to interpret a contemporary people and their traditions in light of that text. Given that this is a task concerned, ultimately, with the church’s relationship with the world, a parachurch home for developing this theology is an uncomfortable fit.
But maybe not an impossible fit. Evangelicals have in recent years been concerned with revitalizing the lived experience of the church, and there’s more work to be done. But the logic of evangelicalism provides a space for theologians to dialogue about denominational particulars in light of their shared emphases. At its best, such a dialogue forms its own tradition of discourse that contributes to the various denominations by sharpening individual theologians’ reasons, Biblical and otherwise, for maintaining their particular doctrinal commitments. Such a tradition may not proceed linearly, as it has no body of canon law or authoritative precedent and no pronouncements to refer back to and build upon. But it would be a tradition of contending for the centre of theological reflection, of attempting to establish first things, and of constantly reminding its participants of why they must be first.
Overcoming Doctrinal Reductionism
Such are the institutional pressures against evangelical political theology. There are other problems as well, though. For one, the evangelical world continues to suffer a theological hangover that has made the work of social ethics and political theology more of a challenge than they have been for other traditions. The locus of substantive evangelical theological reflection has been, as Russell Moore argued, the “kingdom of God” and our place within it. Given how central the theme is to the gospels, that’s the right emphasis to have.
However, what comes before the question of the kingdom is a question about creation— and here, evangelicals have often had their hands tied by the controversies surrounding evolution, especially in the churches and schools that make up the evangelical world. Evangelical instruction about creation often motors by the acknowledgement that it is good, on its way to disputing how the world was created, which is apparently where all the interesting stuff really lies. And the worry that evangelicals are overly focused on the mechanics of creation is not new. In the final book of God, Revelation and Authority, Carl Henry was particularly interested in safeguarding the question of “how” against those who were interested in relegating it to the background (or not asking it at all). But again, what’s true at the academic level has rarely reached the churches and most evangelicals struggle to see how spending all our time on “how” leaves aside other, more important concerns—and thus leaves us with a thin doctrine of creation.
The effect of all this, for our purposes, is that moral theology becomes problematic when the “kingdom of God” takes shape against that thin doctrine of creation. The voluntarism at the heart of our conception of the Kingdom has been untethered from an understanding of the nature and ends of humanity and the world. As a result, ethics is collapsed from rational deliberation about the world in light of the revelation of God’s will in Scripture into discerning whether or not Scripture gives an explicit command before proceeding. The ends of the Kingdom eclipse our creatureliness and all the goods that go along with it.
Henry himself was careful not to allow that to happen, yet in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism he shows the path by which such a reduction can occur. When speaking of those things that Scripture condemns as wrong, including adultery, he suggests that “these deeds were wrong before Moses, yes even before Adam: they have been wrong always, and will be wrong always because they are antagonistic to the character and will of the sovereign God of the universe.” That may be true, but identifying the rightness or wrongness of particular actions by scrutinizing that “character and will” has proved more difficult for issues that Scripture is silent on. And while Henry and other evangelical theologians have been able to more carefully avoid reductionism, the teaching in our churches has rarely been so lucky.
As a result, for many evangelicals, ethics is little more than proof-texting combined with a temperature check of the conscience. Voluntaristic conceptions of God, where his will trumps every other facet of his character, have allied themselves with Biblical reductionism and an internally minded pietism to strip pastors and theologians of their ability to provide authoritative moral exhortation and guidance. And as long as moral theology is difficult, political theology will be near impossible.
It’s no surprise, then, that much of the best evangelical political theology has occurred within the Reformed tradition, with its emphasis on common grace, the doctrine of creation, and—of late—a recovery of a somewhat higher ecclesiology. Richard Mouw’s work in Politics and the Biblical Drama and Political Evangelism were highlighted by Mark Noll as exceptional for good reason: They are careful, substantive retrievals of political theology that dialogue with the emerging (at the time) Anabaptist witness on political theology. Count Nicholas Wolterstorff, Jonathan Chaplin, and much of the Schaefferian crowd on that side of the ledger, too.
There are other doctrinal pressures, too, that evangelical political theologies face; the evangelical emphasis on hearts-and-minds conversion has made political concerns, and ecclesiastical concerns, secondary within the Christian life. For as much as Henry sought to help evangelicals become articulate “about the social reference of the gospel,” in his work that social reference is often limited to the implications of the work of regeneration in the individual’s life. While in Aspects of Christian Social Ethics Henry carved out space for the church’s “vigorous declaration of the great principles of social order enunciated in the Scriptures,” the church’s social effect takes an individualistic focus. As he puts it, “Supernatural regeneration . . . is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian movement.” Fighting back against the social gospel, Henry chastened the Church against considering itself “the conscience of the State, or the pulsebeat of the body politic” lest it merge “its interests with those of the world or the surrounding culture.” In doing so, Henry minimizes the prophetic task of the church and introduces an unfortunate dualism into the social order and the church’s role in it.
An Evangelical Bricolage?
None of these pressures are insurmountable. It is possible to retain the emphasis on conversion and missions without allowing them to undermine the church’s witness on political questions. And while it might seem, on the outside, that evangelicals would be doomed to “borrowing” from other traditions, this presumes evangelicalism cannot coexist within them (despite the witness of John Stott, J.I. Packer, and others who clearly do). What’s more, evangelicals can legitimately claim the history of Protestant and even pre-Reformation Catholic social and political reflection. After all, there is no escaping the “bricolage” complaint for Protestants of any sort.
And yet, the evangelical principle of prioritizing Scripture allows for a certain sort of appropriation of the great tradition without sacrificing our theological integrity. When Paul affirms a standard of wisdom centred on the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 3, he grounds it in the principle that “all things are [ours],” including life, death, the world, the present, and the future by virtue of our union with Christ. Presumably all that includes resources from history and other theological traditions, too.
This is a similar rationale that Calvin provides in his “Address to King Francis” that opens The Institutes:
Yet we are so versed in [the church fathers’] writings as to remember always that all things are ours, to serve us, not to lord it over us, and that we belong to the one Christ, whom we must obey in all things without exception. He who does not observe this distinction will have nothing certain in religion, inasmuch as these holy men were ignorant of many things, often disagreed among themselves, and sometimes even contradicted themselves.
Calvin’s point isn’t a repudiation of tradition so much as an affirmation that any tradition’s primary allegiance is not to itself, but to the revelation of the Word of God. At its best, the evangelical movement has invigorated the communities and institutions in which its presence has been felt by reminding them of this principle.
In fact, the only way for evangelicals to invigorate their own tradition of political theology is by becoming rooted in their own theological heritage while reading more deeply in others. Theologians like Carl Henry, Richard Mouw, and others are best known for work that bridges the academic and lay audiences. There are riches within that deserve to be brought into dialogue with contemporary political theologians. Taking this approach will mean entering into the struggle for the evangelical tradition from within and recognizing, as Oliver O’Donovan put it in his response to Rist, that “tradition is a noun of action, not a concrete noun” that requires “reading more widely than in the canonical teaching tradition.”
It’s not so much, to riff on a Chesterton line, that the tradition of evangelical political theology has been tried and found wanting. It’s that it hasn’t yet been tried at all. Yet if such a tradition begins to emerge, it will doubtlessly look much like evangelicalism itself: disparate, institutionally diffused, and oriented toward invigorating the ecclesiastical bodies that its members call home.