Divided by a common language

Posted on July 16, 2012

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I over-reacted in my post yesterday, as I admitted when challenged by Alan Jacobs in the comments. Ross Douthat himself was not only generous enough to notice and respond to the post, but was very kind in his response. I do certainly take the point that he and Alan were making concerning the centrality of the social gospel to a specifically American tradition of liberalism, and I am glad both have been willing to indicate that they took my point about the deeper intellectual roots. Douthat is an excellent journalist who I respect greatly.

The misplaced passion of my reaction came, on reflection, from a different division between American and British traditions of Christianity, concerning evangelicalism – a subject I spend more time on, and care more about, than liberalism. I am passionate about reclaiming an evangelical tradition of progressive social involvement that I see as native and intrinsic to the movement – on both sides of the Atlantic (slavery is an easy example, either way: Wilberforce, Hannah More, and the rest over here; Finney inventing the altar call because he was not going to let anyone profess conversion to Christianity without signing them up for the abolitionist cause over there). In the early decades twentieth century, both sides of the Atlantic, social transformation slipped off the evangelical agenda for various reasons; it was recovered by the new evangelicalism of Billy Graham, the NAE, and Christianity Today, and then later over here, not least through the teaching and example of John Stott.

The reasons that an alliance grew up between American evangelicals and the Republican party are well-enough rehearsed, and have largely to do with certain touchstone ethical issues becoming partisan in the USA (if abortion and euthanasia became partisan issues here, I suspect there would be just as monolithic an evangelical block vote in Britain). We shouldn’t forget, of course, either that there was some overlap between Christians involved in the anti-Vietnam protests and Christians involved in protesting Roe vs Wade, or that the first mobilising of a block evangelical vote was in support of a Democrat, Jimmy Carter. That said, for various reasons – culture wars not least amongst them – the alliance between evangelicals and political conservatives has shaped – not monolithically, but to some extent, and certainly in public perception – evangelical politics in the USA.

As a British evangelical, indeed as someone actively involved in coordinating national public policy discussions amongst British evangelicals from time to time, I have to confess that, on the one hand, the loss of the older progressive and transformative agenda from the American wing of the movement concerns me and, on the other, the easy assumption made regularly on both sides of ‘the pond’ that what is true in America is true over here annoys me greatly. It annoys me because it hinders our mission, closes doors that would otherwise be open to us, prevents us from forming progressive alliances which would be of great benefit to those most in need in our society. I could give several specific examples of these points, of opportunities for gospel work – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour – which were either lost, or made more difficult, because of the ignorance of somebody over the difference between the social/political stances of British evangelicalism and (the popular perception of) the American strand of the movement.

I don’t apologise for getting passionate about this – indeed, I would be seriously concerned about the state of my soul if I ever stopped getting passionate about this. Where that passion leads to my being unnecessarily harsh on someone who is commenting very fairly on a related subject, I do apologise. I think that was the case in the tone of at least some of my comments yesterday.

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