Faith, Hope, and...
Evangelicals in America.
Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
But the quick rise to power for some has left them without sufficient resources. The lack of a distinctive evangelical tradition of scholarship, art, or social and political theory is a major hurdle that evangelicals need to overcome. Unlike Roman Catholics, evangelicals have little to draw on except the Bible. They don't have a robust theology, and the movement is too young (and, until recently, too isolated) to have many intellectual resources in any of the fields Lindsay addresses. Consider George W. Bush's oft-quoted statement that Jesus is his favorite political philosopher. This wasn't just a way to get votes. In a certain sense Bush was doing, and has done, what many evangelicals do: read government action directly off the pages of the Bible.
Of course, this is a problem for anyone who values limited government, enumerated powers, constitutionalist judges, or most of the other political values that the Western tradition has developed but which don't immediately tug on evangelical heartstrings. And while there is nothing wrong with a broad, biblically informed social vision, disaster can result when this vision is translated into a political vision of government action. Both right-leaning and left-leaning evangelicals play the translate-the-Bible-into-public-policy game, which increases the state's role and undervalues key aspects of constitutionalism, national defense, and market economies that are essential to free societies, though not prominent in Scripture.
But these political confusions pale in comparison to the spiritual maladies that become strikingly clear throughout Lindsay's study. Though he never mentions this phenomenon explicitly, Lindsay recounts numerous stories of evangelical leaders who seem to view much of life as only instrumentally valuable: Why lead a successful business, create movies or music, produce penetrating scholarship, or hold public office, except to acquire a platform to change culture and lead others to Christ?
This is a terribly stunted spiritual and moral outlook. It neglects the basic, intrinsic goodness of creation and human activity. From a traditional Christian perspective, God is pleased by work well done in any upright field, and not just as it's useful for winning converts. Christians can worship God and bring Him glory in their everyday activities. Certainly these can be the occasion for spreading the Gospel, but to see them primarily, or exclusively, as means for evangelism misses the central truth of Christianity: The Word became flesh so that all aspects of human life, not just formal religious behavior, could participate in the divine life.
These are challenges for future generations of evangelicals to take up. Those looking to understand the current generation, however, would do well to read D. Michael Lindsay, for he captures the complexities of evangelical life in a book that no one interested in the current state of American life can ignore.
As for me, though a Roman Catholic, I ended up participating in some evangelical activities at Princeton and formed many strong friendships. My professional life, too, has involved close work with a number of evangelicals. Though theological differences remain, I'm thankful for my evangelical friends. They've made me a better person, and a better Catholic.
Ryan T. Anderson, assistant editor at First Things, is a Phillips Foundation fellow and assistant director of the Program in Bioethics at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.