At the evangelical college where I teach, it has been several years since the faculty became really agitated over an injustice some-where in the world. To be sure, there is talk about Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti, but none of these crises—in spite of their horror—has generated the levels of intense passion and controversy that characterized Cold War-era discussions of South African divestment, U.S. policy in Nicaragua, or free market economics.
It’s also been quite awhile since I’ve heard anyone suggest that Cuba or some other socialist haven is a paradise of peace and justice fit for emulation. Gone too, it seems, is the demonization of America. Today, my colleagues are preoccupied by more local concerns as a kind of ideological isolationism has descended on the campus. The seismic shock waves generated by the collapse of communism has jolted the politics of the academy; the old ideological fault lines have shifted, and dramatically so.
This phenomenon on my campus is not unique and mirrors a transformation that has taken place among evangelicals more generally. While not widely recognized outside of the evangelical subculture, the politics of evangelicals is not homogeneous. To be sure, the typical evangelical is likely to be politically conservative and sympathetic to the agenda of a Pat Robertson or James Dobson. But there are also evangelicals equally comfortable with the agenda of the political left. These evangelicals are disproportionately represented at evangelical colleges and seminaries, but they are found among the general evangelical population as well.
The changes brought about by the end of the Cold War have affected both the left and the right wings of evangelicalism. For most of the past SO years, atheistic communism was the preoccupation of evangelicals, much as evolution and “demon rum” were in the earlier years. With the demise of communism, most evangelicals no longer see a foreign enemy; instead they have focused their energies on the domestic culture wars. This reorientation has not been a difficult one since mainstream evangelical theology has always been, at root, culturally conservative.
Evangelicals on the political left, however, are having a more difficult time adjusting to post-Cold War realities for the simple reason that their earthly politics has been closely wed to a discredited ideological vision. This fact has forced self-described “peace and justice” evangelical activists to rethink their commitments.
Some of the most interesting re- thinking is taking place in the pages of Sojourners magazine, which for 20 years has been an influential voice of radical evangelicalism. In an article published earlier this year entitled, “Seeing the World Through New Lenses,” contributing editor Richard Taylor writes that while “the appeal of a leftist perspective is . . . self- evident for the activist who takes biblical faith seriously . . . [the] enormous changes . . . sweeping the world” have “delegitimized” socialism and leftist movements. “Only repressive hardliners,” continues Taylor, “still cling to the old thought-forms.”
Moreover, Taylor chides Christian radicals for turning a “blind eye” to atrocities committed by governments of the left: “Looking at life through a leftist lens . . . can distort our view of reality and loosen our grasp on the gospel, and even harden our hearts.” And, says Taylor, “a leftist critique . . . can help to blind us to the good things about the United States, things that have contributed to human liberation in many parts of the world.”
In a later issue, the patriarch of radical evangelicalism and Sojourners’ founding father, Jim Wallis, continues in the same vein: “On so many fronts, the old assumptions and structures that have long governed are dying. . . . The moment calls for fresh visions and dreams that hold the promise of change.”
Viewed in the context of Sojourners’ 20-year apologetic for left-wing politics, these words are remarkable. In spite of being clothed in the high- sounding rhetoric of a biblical “third way,” the socialist agenda advanced by Sojourners and other leftist evangelicals was really never more than a politically-defined theology. For this reason, Wallis; appeal to the “the promise of Change” is encouraging.
Only time will tell if evangelicals of the left are serious about revaluating their longstanding hostility to democratic capitalism. Even more importantly, the evangelical left needs to demonstrate that it understands the central truth of the Christian gospel: namely, that the dead are not raised through social activism or trendy politics. Here, the early signs are less encouraging. For among many left-leaning evangelicals their Cold War embrace of socialism has been supplanted by a post-Cold War embrace of the politics of gender and multiculturalism. That, however, is another story for another day.