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Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Emerging Evangelical Center, Part 2

Here is a link to the Introduction of my paper entitled "Evangelical Centrists and Moderate Baptists: The Case For Incompatibility." You can read the entire paper here.

Tomorrow, I will post a section on Substantive Neutrality and Saturday I will post sections on the Baptist Joint Committee and the Texas Christian Life Commission.

The second section is below:

I. The Emerging Evangelical Center

A. David Gushee and the Emerging Evangelical Center

In his newly released book, The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center, Baptist ethicist David Gushee identifies what he calls an “emerging evangelical center” that is neither left nor right.[1] While the “evangelical right” has long been represented by world renown fundamentalists such as James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell, the “evangelical left” has in recent years come to be symbolized by lesser known but well respected religious leaders such as Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo.[2] But today, according to Gushee, there is “emerging a visible and increasingly powerful evangelical center”[3] that is “increasingly vibrant and promises to play an increasingly significant role within evangelical Christianity and the United States.”[4]

Throughout The Future of Faith in American Politics, Gushee attempts to “stake a claim” to this emerging evangelical center by contrasting it with the evangelical right and evangelical left.[5] Gushee offers strong criticisms of the evangelical right. He claims that the evangelical right has “given up its fundamental allegiance to Jesus Christ in aligning itself so tightly with the Republican Party.”[6] Gushee also laments the narrowness of the evangelical right’s political agenda. However, he stresses that there are a number of issues where the evangelical center is generally in full agreement with the evangelical right. These include opposition to gay marriage, Roe v. Wade, euthanasia, sex outside of heterosexual marriage, the creation-for-destruction of embryos and the harvesting of stem cells from existing embryos.[7]

Gushee also directs several criticisms towards the evangelical left and its leaders. He claims that leaders of the evangelical left such as Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Brian McLaren tend to downplay issues central to the agenda of the evangelical right including abortion and homosexuality. Gushee chides the evangelical left for not addressing these issues as much as he would like.[8] However, Gushee notes that the evangelical center also shares many common characteristics with the evangelical left. Some of these include an emphasis on the plight of the poor as central to a biblical moral agenda, opposition to the routine resort to war, high priority given to the environment and climate change, a commitment to human rights which includes opposition to torture and a “constrained, critical patriotism rather than a nationalist ‘God and country’ stance.”[9]

Unlike the evangelical right and the evangelical left, Gushee explains that the evangelical center is more carefully committed to political independence and aims to avoid partisan entanglements. Where the evangelical left speaks of racial justice, the evangelical center prefers racial reconciliation. According to Gushee, the evangelical center rejects the “working pacifism” of the evangelical left and instead is willing to support wars that “meet a careful rendering of the just-war theory.” Gushee explains that the evangelical center does not resonate with the evangelical left’s tilt toward the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While mostly silent on issues of gender and public education, the evangelical center speaks more openly and extensively than the evangelical left on abortion and gay marriage.[10]

B. Moderate Baptists and the Emerging Evangelical Center

Greg Warner, editor of the Associated Baptist Press, asked in a recent article, “If the Religious Right is losing its influence, as many pundits predict, will it be replaced by the ‘other’ evangelicals – a center and left coalition with a broader social agenda and a kinder, gentler brand of cultural engagement?”[11] One month later, Warner came back to his readers with another interesting question. He asked, “If an ‘evangelical center’ emerges from the current shake-up in American politics, will moderate Baptists[12] be part of it?”[13]

In his opinion pieces as a guest columnist for Associated Baptist Press, David Gushee has repeatedly answered Warner’s two questions in the affirmative.[14] He believes that most moderate Baptists are also evangelical centrists.[15] “Most moderate Baptists are center or center-left evangelicals, they just don’t know it,” says Gushee.[16] He notes that “if you define ‘evangelicalism’ as core doctrinal beliefs, there’s no reason why Baptists would not be evangelicals.” Dating the roots of the evangelical movement to the Protestant renewal movements of the sixteenth century, Gushee defines an “evangelical” as one who holds that the final, ultimate authority is the Bible, believes that Jesus Christ died for the salvation of all, believes in the importance of evangelism and in “engaged orthodoxy” or applying faith to bear on culture.[17] Gushee believes that by this definition over ninety percent of white Baptists in the South and ninety-five percent of African-American Baptists are evangelical Christians.[18] According to Gushee, one of his goals is to help moderate Baptists “reclaim the term ‘evangelical’ and reassociate with other evangelicals who are kindred spirits, if they only knew it.”[19]

Gushee is correct to note that moderate Baptists share much in common with those whom he dubs “evangelical centrists.”[20] The recent New Baptist Covenant Celebration held in Atlanta, Georgia proves this true. Organized by mostly moderate Baptist leaders, including former United States President Jimmy Carter, President Bill Underwood of Mercer University and Jimmy Allen, the last moderate President of the Southern Baptist Convention, the New Baptist Covenant is an informal alliance of thirty Baptist organizations representing over twenty million Baptists in North America.[21] This informal alliance hosted an historic three-day celebration in January, 2008 which focused on many of the same issues that Gushee asserts “evangelical centrists” are concerned with. The special sessions of this celebration which attracted more than 15,000 Baptists addressed issues such as: poverty, criminal justice reform, respecting religious diversity, peacemaking, immigration reform, the intersection of faith and public policy, sex trafficking, race and racism, HIV/AIDS pandemic, and religious liberty.[22]

Indeed, evangelical centrists share much in common with moderate Baptists. However, most moderate Baptists and their organizations would differ strongly with evangelical centrists on issues pertaining to the separation of church and state. In his book, Gushee emphasizes that the evangelical center as a whole is committed to a “substantive neutrality” reading of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause rather than a “strict separationist” reading of that same clause.[23] He notes that this “substantive neutrality” interpretation of the Establishment Clause is a “consensus position” among evangelical centrists.[24]

Another “consensus position” among evangelical centrists deals with the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. Gushee explains that the evangelical center supports the free exercise rights of evangelical churches and schools to “hire/admit according to religious and moral conviction tests appropriate to our faith tradition.”[25] According to Gushee, the evangelical center also supports the “equal access of faith-based organizations to government funds if their programs are effective in meeting social needs.” Gushee points out that evangelical centrists have been supportive of President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative because they believe such programs “reflects a proper understanding of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”[26] He notes that these religious liberty views are “rooted in the broad embrace of the ‘substantive neutrality’ interpretation of the First Amendment.”[27]

It appears that Gushee’s treatment of church-state issues has created a false dichotomy between substantive neutrality and strict separationism. Gushee does not have to limit the perspectives toward the interpretation of the Establishment Clause to two options. As renowned church-state expert Carl Esbeck points out in his widely read article entitled "Five Views of Church-State Relations in Contemporary American Thought," that there are more than two ways to interpret the Establishment Clause. Further, in his book, Gushee neglects to explicitly define what the term strict separationism actually means. Carl Esbeck's widely accepted definition of strict separationism asserts that a strict separationist desires an asbolute separation between civil affairs and religon even though they know that such is not presently possible in America.[28] Does Gushee accept this common definition of strict separationism? If the answer is yes, then surely Gushee knows that not all separationists are strict separationists. Or is Gushee really using "strict separationist" as a pejorative term to describe the average run of the mill separationist who opposes school vouchers and President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative?

[1] David Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008), xviii. In an opinion piece written after the publication of his book, Gushee explained that polling data led him to argue that “non-white evangelicals and younger evangelicals definitely skewed in a centrist or more liberal direction overall than did older white evangelicals.” This data led Gushee to project that generational change and increasing demographic diversity among evangelicals in America “would lead to the emergence of a strong and visible evangelical center, a more muscular evangelical left, and in some cases a center-left coalition representing half or more of American evangelicals.” See David Gushee, “Emerging evangelical center may decide 200 election,” Associated Baptist Press, February 19, 2008, under “Opinion,” http://www.abpnews.com/3037.article [accessed April 4, 2008].

[2] David Gushee, “Emerging evangelical center may decide 2008 election,” Associated Baptist Press, February 19, 2008, under “Opinion,” http://www.abpnews.com/3037.article [accessed April 4, 2008].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics, 3.

[5] Gushee defines the “evangelical right” as the “conservative evangelical activist community” which includes organizations such as the American Family Association, Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, High Impact Leadership Coalition, Moral Majority Coalition, Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the Traditional Values Coalition. See Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics, 23-55. Gushee notes that the “evangelical left” like most evangelicals roots their faith in the authority of the Bible. However, Gushee says the evangelical left is left because “it reads Scripture and interprets the demands of Christian discipleship to require what in our contemporary American and Christian contexts are considered left-leaning moral commitments.” See Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics, 58.

[6] Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics, 49.

[7] Gushee notes that only majority opposition exists among centrist evangelicals to the harvesting of stem cells from existing embryos. Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics, 88.

[8] Ibid, 88-89.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 90-91

[11] Greg Warner, “Will ‘evangelical center’ emerge to rival waning Christian Right?” Associated Baptist Press, February 21, 2008, http://www.abpnews.com/3044.article [April 15, 2008].

[12] Moderate Baptists trace their Baptist lineage through the Southern Baptist Convention. Most moderate Baptists are actually former Southern Baptists. Historically, moderate Baptists have repeatedly affirmed the centrality of biblical authority but they resisted inerrancy as dogmatism. To this day, moderates continue in their attempt to affirm what they consider the heart of the Baptist heritage: the authority of the Bible for religious faith and practice, soul competency, personal religious experience, the priesthood of all believers, religious liberty and the separation of church and state, local church autonomy, anti-creedalism, and unity in missions and evangelism amidst some theological diversity. Moderate Baptists cooperate together at the national level primarily through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and to a much lesser extent the Mainstream Baptist Network. Some moderate Baptists in certain geographic areas have aligned themselves with the American Baptist Churches USA. At the state level, large numbers of moderate Baptists can be found participating in the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. Moderate Baptists are also deeply supportive of the work of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Baptist World Alliance. In Texas, moderate Baptists turn to the Christian Life Commission to represent their social concerns at the Capitol in Austin. Though some “moderate Baptists” do not prefer being called “moderate,” this is the one adjective that has been used the most over the past thirty years to describe this particular group of Baptists. As a moderate Baptist myself, I hope the day will come when “Baptist” is no longer synonymous with “Southern Baptist” in American culture and the “moderate” qualifier will no longer be necessary.

[13] Greg Warner, “Will Baptists be counted among those in the ‘evangelical center’?,” Associated Baptist Press, March 13, 2008, http://www.abpnews.com/3081.article [accessed April 4, 2008].

[14] David Gushee, “Toward a truly evangelical Baptist future,” Associated Baptist Press, November 6, 2007, http://www.abpnews.com/2839.article [accessed April 4, 2008]; also, Greg Warner, “Will ‘evangelical center’ emerge to rival waning Christian Right?” and Greg Warner, “Will Baptists be counted among those in the ‘evangelical center’?”

[15] Gushee, “Toward a truly evangelical Baptist future.”

[16] Warner, “Will ‘evangelical center’ emerge to rival waning Christian Right?”

[17] For several decades, there has been debate as to whether Southern Baptists (and those Baptists with Southern Baptist roots) are actually evangelicals. In a 1976 Newsweek story, the late Foy Valentine who was then the Executive Director of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention proclaimed “We are not evangelicals. That's a Yankee word." See Foy Valentine, quoted by Kenneth L. Woodward in “Born Again! The Year of the Evangelicals,” Newsweek, October 25, 1976, 76. Consequently, this issue of whether Southern Baptists are evangelicals was classically discussed in a book edited by James Leo Garrett, Jr., E. Glenn Hinson and James E. Tull entitled Are Southern Baptists "Evangelicals”? See James Leo Garrett, Jr., E. Glenn Hinson, and James E. Tull, eds., Are Southern Baptists “Evangelicals”? (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983). Ten years later in 1993 this conversation was continued in a book edited by David Dockery (including contributions from Garrett and Hinson) entitled, Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals: The Conversation Continues. See David Dockery, ed., Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals: The Conversation Continues (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Press, 1993).

[18] Gushee, “Toward a truly evangelical Baptist future.”

[19] Warner, “Will ‘evangelical center’ emerge to rival waning Christian Right?” According to Gushee, Baptists in the South “remain extraordinarily fixated on Baptist identity rather than…international ecumenism.” He asks, “When will we (Baptists) discover the rest of the global Christian family?”

[20] Warner, “Will ‘evangelical center’ emerge to rival waning Christian Right?” Unlike Gushee and many evangelical centrists, moderate Baptists have been relatively silent on gay marriage and other issues relating to homosexuality. Moderate Baptists have also not articulated one view on abortion. Moderate Baptists generally have not been involved in the pro-life movement and few, if any, moderate leaders (unlike Gushee) have advocated for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. My experience growing up in Baptist life has taught me that most moderate Baptists would agree with fellow Baptist Jimmy Carter who is personally opposed to abortion and the Texas Christian Life Commission which has argued that abortion may be permissible in certain circumstances. This nuanced position would put most moderate Baptists at odds with many in the pro-life movement.

[21] Of the thirty participating organizations, seventeen can be described as “moderate Baptist” organizations or as organizations run by “moderate Baptists.”

[22] See the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant website at http://www.newbaptistcelebration.com.

[23] Gushee, The Future of Faith in American Politics, 90-91.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid. Referencing “substantive neutrality” proponent Stephen Monsma, Gushee also notes that while the evangelical center has been supportive of programs such as the Faith-Based Initiative, some are not happy with the motivations or implementations on the part of President Bush’s Administration.

[27] Ibid. Throughout The Future of Faith in American Politics, Gushee points to the centrist statement published in 2004 by the National Association of Evangelicals entitled “For The Health Of The Nations: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” which he describes as the most “careful, thorough, and balanced corporate statement of evangelical public witness that has yet to be offered.” According to Gushee, this centrist statement which characterizes the convictions of the evangelical center defends a substantive neutrality interpretation of the First Amendment. It reads, “when government assists nongovernmental organizations as part of an evenhanded educational, social service, or health care program, religious organizations receiving such aid do not become ‘state actors’ with constitutional duties.”

[28] Carl Esbeck, “Five Views of Church-State Relations in Contemporary American Thought,” Brigham Young University Law Review, no. 2 (1986): 379-385.

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