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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Dialoguing With David Gushee, Part 1

"Just as many Christian liberals of a previous generation were unable to say no to abortion-on-demand because they were more liberal than Christian, many Christian conservatives of this generation have been unable to say no to torture because they are more conservative than Christian." - David Gushee
Randall Balmer, Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University, writes that David Gushee's new book, The Future of Faith in American Politics, "challenges Jim Hightower's famous maxim that the only things in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos. Gushee offers here a cogent and balanced agenda for evangelical activism, a most welcome addition to this important conversation."

I agree with Balmer. Thus far, The Future of Faith in American Politics, is one of the best books on evangelicals that I have ever read. And as a graduate student in the field of Church-State studies, I have read more than a handful of books on the subject of evangelicals and American politics! If you plan to read one such book in the upcoming months, do yourself a favor and put down Jim Wallis' The Great Awakening and pick up David Gushee's The Future of Faith in American Politics. I'm reading both and frankly Wallis won't tell you anything that you don't already know. Gushee's a real scholar (with a well-developed thesis) and his contribution is quite unique. Check him out.

The following is my attempt to dialogue with the first two chapters of Gushee's book.

On the first page of Chapter 1, Gushee states that the purpose of The Future of Faith in American Politics is to stake a claim to an emerging evangelical center in American public life and to describe the moral witness of that evangelical center by contrasting it with its right-leaning and left-leaning alternatives." Throughout the book, Gushee argues that among the 60 to 80 million evangelicals living in America, one can identify a political center which he describes as "increasingly vibrant" that "promises to plan an increasingly significant role within evangelical Christianity and in the United States."

So, what are the characteristics of an "evangelical centrist"? Here are a few:

Gushee writes that centrist evangelicals are concerned about the deterioration and deinstitutionalization of marriage. Centrist evangelicals oppose abortion-on-demand and Roe v. Wade. Centrist evangelicals oppose the creation-for-destruction of embryos for their stem cells and are uneasy about the harvesting of stem cells from already existing embryos. Centrist evangelicals oppose euthanasia-on-demand and "seek a full and open national debate on the best way to rewrite laws related to abortion that might respect the dignity of all affected by this tragic practice."

Before arguing for an "emerging evangelical center," Gushee offers a descriptive look into the world of the "evangelical right" whose activist community is built around a network of independent but interconnected churches and parachurch organizations customarily built around charismatic leaders. Organizational members of the evangelical right community include Don Wildmon's American Family Association, Beverly LaHaye's Disturbed Women of America, Phyliss Schlafly's Eagle Forum, Tony Perkins' Family Research Council, James Dobson's Focus on the Family and Richard Land's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (plus several others).

Gushee offers a brief but informative overview of each of the leading "evangelical right" organizations and their leaders. What Gushee does with this one chapter overview of the Christian Right is much more helpful and useful than what Clyde Wilcox's Onward Christian Soldiers? (3rd ed) does in over 200 pages.

Interestingly, Gushee notes that Richard Land's ERLC is set apart from many of the other conservative activist groups due to the ERLC's willingness to address traditionally "left" concerns such as race, human rights, and world hunger. Although this may be true to an extent, clearly Land spends much more time flirting with Presidential candidates than he does lobbying the government to give a slice or two of bread to the world. Gushee claims that Land's recent book, The Divided States of America?, is a move toward the centrist evangelicalism that The Future of Faith in American Politics advocates. While Land does indeed distinguish himself from the hard-right Dobson/Kennedy types in his book, I definitely wouldn't describe his approach to religion in the public square as "centrist" or moving in that direction.

In his critique of the "evangelical right," Gushee explains that he "refuses to demonize the evangelical right." I don't advocate demonizing either. But in our criticisms, we shouldn't come across as SOFT. At times Gushee plays too nice with the evangelical right. And sometimes he takes off the gloves. See below:
"I am claiming that the most important thing that is wrong with the evangelical right is that it has given up its fundamental allegiance to Jesus Christ in aligning itself so tightly with the Republican Party....it is impossible both to represent 'the church' and to function as a bloc within a national political party."
In addition to shacking up with the GOP, Gushee notes that the second fundamental problem with the evangelical right is the narrowness of its agenda. Gushee argues that it is when the evangelical right tackles issues other than abortion and gay marriage (i.e. tax cuts for the rich and hating on the U.N.) that they are most transparently partisan.

The third primary problem that Gushee has with the evangelical right is their "mood of angry nostalgia." He writes:
"As a fellow evangelical, speaking within the family, I would begin by saying that neither nostalgia nor anger is the mood most appropriate or constructive for a Christian stance toward culture. We should look forward rather than backward, both because there is no way that twenty-first century American society will ever turn the clock back to the 1950s and because the politics of nostalgia does not prepare us well to engage the realities of the moment."
If only certain Southern Baptist leaders would heed the advice of this self-described "Southern Baptist ethicist".....

My next post will tackle Gushee's chapter on the Evangelical Left.



Anonymous David Gushee said...

Big Daddy, you are doing a good job analyzing my book. Keep it up!

David Gushee hisownself

1:52 PM

Blogger Cat's Dad said...

It's "Concerned," not "Disturbed," Women of America.

Was this a sexist slam? It is the only organization whose name you dissed.

12:29 PM


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