Columns Opinion Richard Mouw: Civil Evangelicalism

Remember when liberals wanted evangelicals to be more political?

(RNS) — For an evangelical of my generation — born during World War II — there is some irony in the frequent complaints these days about how evangelicals have become too “politicized.” When I started thinking seriously about political matters in the early 1960s, a major complaint about evangelicalism — especially from more liberal theological types — was that we were not political enough. American soldiers were fighting a controversial and undeclared war in Southeast Asia, and the civil rights movement was struggling for justice. Yet evangelicals were espousing patriotism and calling for “law and order.”

The evangelicalism that nurtured me in my early years wasn’t, strictly speaking—“apolitical.” Rather, the pattern was a political “quietism.” Support the basic patterns of the political status quo. Be good citizens. Be proud of what your country has traditionally stood for. And vote for candidates — usually the Republican ones — who espouse these other values.

At the evangelical college that I attended, a professor put a Kennedy sign on his front lawn during the 1960 general election. The school administration quickly ordered him to take the sign down if he wanted to keep his job. (He accepted a position elsewhere for the next academic year.)

As a graduate student in the 1960s, I became active in civil rights and anti-war causes.  My extended family was convinced that this meant that I was no longer an evangelical, and for about five years I tried hard to prove them right. Eventually, though, I realized that, given my basic convictions about matters of faith, I had nowhere else to go.

It helped that I discovered many others in my generation who had come to the same conclusion. In the 1972 presidential campaign, some of us organized “Evangelicals for McGovern,” and a year later about 50 of us — including some older leaders who wanted to encourage us — gathered together on Thanksgiving weekend to issue “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concerns,” committing ourselves to the cause of racial justice and peacemaking.

In the 1980s a much more widespread evangelical activism emerged, but it took the form of “the New Religious Right.” And while the Moral Majority, the most visible of the activist groups, no longer exists, the spirit of that rightist mentality lives on.

Here’s the good news in all of this: We no longer have to try to convince evangelicals to be politically active.  The bad news, though, is that we still have a lot to learn, both about what we should be trying to accomplish in our activism and about how we go about social and political advocacy.

Evangelicals in North America have typically gone back and forth between two quite different options in political life. Either we stay on the margins, accepting the status quo, or we get active and try to take things over. There is another option, however: to recognize that we are living in a pluralistic society, and to work with others of diverse faith and no faith to promote specific goals relating to the common good of all of our fellow citizens.

That third option is the more difficult one. It requires patience, humility and a genuine commitment to dialogue and cooperation with folks with whom we disagree. It also requires that we evangelicals look carefully to the Bible for guidance. The ancient prophet gives us a good overall agenda for doing that: “Seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God” (Micah 6:8).

About the author

Richard Mouw

Richard Mouw is Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also served as president for twenty years. He is the author of twenty books, including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. He earned his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

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