How did the Church get sucked into the vortex of political liberalism?
A seminary student whom I've never met, Anthony Davis, recently asked me an interesting and timely question: Why do most theologians today appear to be consumed with issues of social justice in a very left-leaning sort of way, and what do you have to say about it?
This is a very complicated question and I imagine many people have it. So I will do my best to offer a very basic and hopefully helpful sketch. Note: this is just a sketch and it leaves a lot unsaid. What I offer is not a definitive account of “the way things are,” but “my limited perspective of how things got to be the way they are today” and where I find my own work landing in relationship to it.
According to my Protestant friends, mainstream Protestantism now appears to be joined at the hip to political liberalism. Trump's presidency violently shook the apple cart, and many believe it’s the church's job to stop him or at least to direct constant rage toward him in the name of the church’s “prophetic calling.” [That’s an abuse of the term “prophecy,” but that’s beside the point.] Protestants certainly aren’t the only ones adopting this posture. Left-leaning Catholics as well as an increasing number of progressive Evangelicals are also on board. And this isn’t just about counteracting Trump, much of it is rooted in the fervent and sincere desire to make this world a better place, especially for the poor, dislocated, and vulnerable.
Such desire has a long and complex history. One could trace it back to biblical times and one could also compare it to various social movements throughout church history. But the specific mood of the contemporary theological climate is at least 200 years in the making. One influential thinker who signaled its beginning is German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher. Some call him the father of theological liberalism. F. S. was a man of faith who sought to make Christianity respectable to a modern world that was on the verge of pitching it altogether because it seemed to be scientifically naive and socially backward. His landmark work was On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799). The Josh McDowell of his day, F. S. and his successors sought apologetically to rehabilitate Christianity and keep it alive by conforming it to modern standards and insights. He used the words and symbols of Scripture to craft a version of Christianity that was agreeable to the Romantic sensibilities of his day.
Such adaptation of Christian faith to the spirit of the age is the heart of theological liberalism. In this way, liberalism has always had an apologetic dimension to it. Its best intentions have been to present Christ to culture in a way that more people would accept Christ. Liberalism is not first and foremost a rejection of miracles or a low view of Scripture. That said, liberals like Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) sought to identify Christianity’s true essence by disentangling it from science altogether. In his view, science deals with facts that objectively describe the natural world, and religion deals with value judgments based on the effects God has on people’s lives and how that leads us to the highest good. The Kingdom of God, to him, is the unity of humanity in history organized according to love. This is humanity’s highest good and theology’s sole interest. Being Christian means establishing God’s kingdom on earth in history in reasonable and practical ways. Traditional beliefs that conflict with the modern spirit are either cast away or recast altogether in the image of modernity.
In the early 20th century, American theologian Walter Rauschenbusch added another significant feature to the current theological landscape. His Theology of the Social Gospel (1917) set forth a theological agenda that has much in common with contemporary political and theological liberalism and its concern for social justice, but it wasn’t liberal in the same sense as F. S. He blasted the individualism he inherited from F.S.’s heirs and called the church back to a more biblical vision of Christianity. There are thus wonderful insights in his exegesis, cultural criticism, and explication of the social implications of the gospel. He wasn't soft on Jesus and he rightfully placed God’s kingdom at the center of the gospel—a highly biblical move. But he, too, was a child of his time. He shared the social optimism and progressivist historiography that was common before WWII, but not quite biblical. His eschatology was lacking because he affirmed that humans bring the kingdom through social progress. It didn’t require a dramatic divine intervention as envisioned by Jesus, Paul, John, and others. Unfortunately, many evangelicals have dismissed his best insights because of this particular shortcoming and falsely equate all kingdom-centered approaches with it.
These two streams converged at one point, which brought about a strong backlash. Twentieth century fundamentalists sought to reclaim everything that liberalism had jettisoned: a literal interpretation of Scripture, the plausibility of miracles, and the need for a decisive divine in-breaking in world history to set things straight (in premillennial fashion). They focused more on identification and submission to propositional truths and less on world betterment. The gospel was identified as the right response to the right set of truths that make one right with God and thus fit for the afterlife. Yet they, too, sought to rehabilitate Christianity by conforming it to modern criteria of respectability. In that way, they mirrored liberalism.
A generation inspired by Karl Barth (1886-1968) sought to pave a different sort of path. They held a high view of Scripture, like fundamentalism, but they grounded it differently. This produced a generation of scholars who began focusing on the over-arching story of Scripture without altogether jettisoning modern intellectual developments. Narrative and canonical approaches emerged that prompted a revival of biblical studies that took the Bible seriously on its own terms and not on purely modernistic ones. Out of this movement came scholars like John Howard Yoder, a student of Barth whose Politics of Jesus (1968) argued persuasively (using the latest insights of biblical studies; not cultural or political liberalism) that the gospel of Jesus has always had social and political implications. But for Yoder, these implications had to do first with the church's unique life together that is supposed to be an alternative and thus a light and leaven to the wider world. He unhinged the church's political vision from wider society's political vision and agenda. In other words, under social gospel liberalism, the church's main job was to be an agent that helps the world's social and political structures to become more like God’s kingdom. They sought to make the world a better place. Yoder recognized that this is not the shape of the full biblical narrative from OT to NT. Rather God was creating his set apart people to be a better place amid a world order that is passing away and will eventually be replaced by God's kingdom, which has already begun to take shape in the life of God's people.
Yoder's successors, like Stanley Hauerwas (co-author of Resident Aliens, 1989) and his theological entourage, were convinced that the church's first task was to be the church, which meant separating itself from the state church of the left and the state church of the right. They took social justice very seriously, but for them it always began with and emanated from the shared life of God's people. They hoped that our witness would have an impact on the wider culture and they weren't shy to recognize when that appears to be the case, but they were always careful to make sure we didn't get sucked in by any success and seduced into focusing on bettering society rather than being the church that is salt and light and, in that way, indirectly has a bettering impact on society. Society to them was and is under God's judgment and is doomed to pass.
Hauerwas made a significant enough impact to be identified by Time Magazine as America’s best theologian in 2001. The Yoder-Hauerwas camp, following Barth and sometimes referred to as postliberalism, represented a middle way between liberalism and conservatism because they weren't clearly one or the other. People on the left and right both accused them of being sectarian and irresponsible. They felt it was wrong for the church to take a hands-off approach to world governance. The liberals no longer believed in the church as anything more than one of many social service agencies that could help make a better world. The conservatives felt that to have the truth made one responsible for holding everyone accountable to it. They believed that those in the know should be in control. Since Christians are most in the know, for the good of the world they should do everything in their power to make it better. These theological convictions made possible the Christian Right, which has made significant waves in Washington D.C.
At the same time as the Yoder-Hauerwas movement, old school liberalism and the social gospel continued thriving in major universities, and fundamentalism/conservatism began morphing into conservative evangelicalism and found a large following among the Reformed, Baptists, and others. As a reaction to liberal focus on social justice, many evangelicals emphasized salvation of souls from sin. Many Evangelical scholars sought to hold the two together (e.g., John Stott), but on the ground many preachers and congregations were too concerned to be not liberal to dabble much in social activism. Meanwhile another school began growing in influence, namely, liberation theology. Gustavo Gutierrez (Theology of Liberation, 1973) was the fountainhead of this stream. Like the social gospel movement, liberation theologians focused on the social dimensions of the gospel. Yet they were not as church-centered as postliberals. They were less into reforming the social life of the body of Christ and more into Christians reforming the social life of their cities/states/countries. They presupposed that the church should be a good example, but they required the church to be highly active in contemporary social ills. Wherever people are oppressed, God's people should be present working to liberate them. Jesus gives the vision and authorization for that liberation, and Christians are his hands and feet to carry it out. While this movement had its geographic roots in Latin America, it took various forms elsewhere. Its basic approach has been appropriated by feminism, queer theology, black theology, womanist theology, and other groups that have been marginalized.
During the postliberal heyday, liberation theology was sort of niche. They remained on the margins, but they were growing in momentum. Yet postliberals began winning over evangelicals and mainstreamers alike insofar as all were now convinced that the gospel isn't just about saving souls, but also has strong social-political dimensions that must be taken seriously in one way or another precisely because they are so deeply rooted in Scripture. The issue was no longer, "should we" make much of the social dimensions of the gospel, but "how should we" make much of them. At that time, one could do so from the left or the right sides of the political spectrum, or even from a separate-from-the-powers political position.
That's where things have been for several decades until recently. While the postliberal approach began winning over evangelicals and pulling them closer to center, leftists began migrating even further left. Postliberalism was too hands-off and church-centered for them. They began embracing a more liberationist perspective, albeit with a lower view of Scripture than the earliest liberation theologians. It became self-evident to everyone that women, blacks, Latinos, Asians, LGBTQI, and now immigrants must gain equal standing in society, over and against those who have wittingly or unwittingly suppressed them for far too long. This is now the number one priority of the state and thus the church.
As far as I can tell, no new exegetical work has been done to propel this vision forward. The demands of the present drive the agenda, and the widely agreed upon social implications of the gospel are enough to sustain them. Anything in the Bible that puts limits on that vision is written off as cultural (and thus dispensable) or a misrepresentation of God's vision on the part of the authors (and thus regrettable). So the exegetical agenda has focused on shaving away the unseemly dimensions of the biblical story and foregrounding the agreeable ones. The Trump presidency has given this movement a tremendous amount of urgency since he represents to them a return to the oppressive days of white, male, western supremacy. The church is now scrambling to be relevant by doing everything in its power to be on whatever side is opposed to Trump. I am not sure there is a single author who is pushing this whole enterprise, because it seems to be everywhere. Even the faithful heirs of postliberalism are beginning to retreat from their relative disentanglement from statecraft. They feel somehow guilty or responsible for looking the other way while America was drifting Trumpward.
Anyway, that's how I think we've gotten to where we are today. I count myself as more of an evangelical postliberal. I've recently published my position in a book called Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. I am convinced from the Scriptures that God has not called his people to make this world a better place, but to be the better place God has made in this world through Christ. My view of the governing authorities (i.e., powers and principalities) is skeptically-neutral. They are clearly fallen, but God nonetheless uses them to sustain enough peace throughout the world so that the church can advance the gospel cause. I believe our posture toward them should be one of respectful disentanglement. That is our priestly calling and our missionary stance as a transterritorial people. The church should never get caught up in the hysteria of the now moment. We are called not to fret about what the world frets about and to trust that God is in control of the powers and will use them to re-balance any rampant abuse that begins to wreak havoc in his world (be it Trump, Putin, or Kim Jong-un). All the more, we need to embrace, display, and proclaim God's kingdom—in all of its social-political dimensions—because it is the only true hope in this world.