Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism (Review)

I remember a few semesters ago I had the opportunity to take a semester long course with Ken Collins on the life and theology of John Wesley. It was a great course, and in addition to reading 52 of Wesley’s standard sermons, we were required to read three books which the professor himself had written on the historic minister. As one who is not a Methodist in title but Wesleyan at heart, the course helped me organize my own thoughts and feelings, it helped me correct some misunderstandings, and it encouraged me to really listen to those “great” voices from the past. Collins was a “Wesley Scholar” (I even included him in the John Wesley Bobblehead video) and I figured that if I ever needed to tackle a question about Wesleyanism, he was the guy to go to.

This makes his most recent book all the more interesting: it’s not about John Wesley or American Methodism or why Calvin was wrong about free will. It’s about American politics!

Collin’s new book, Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration (IVP: 2012), is a much needed history and critique of evangelicalism and politics. I’ll be honest. I began the book a little concerned, wondering if a John Wesley scholar could really do justice to the question of politics. Why? Well, for the simple fact that, as Collins points out, evangelicals have not always had the most healthy and proper view of politics, much less a healthy engagement with it. Both the Left and the Right have made drastic mistakes, namely in their thinking that somehow American politics and the Kingdom of God are intimately linked in a way which can force God’s hand at the expense of the other. I knew Collins well enough that he was certainly no Moral Majority advocate, but still the hesitancy of any evangelical speaking well about politics in the public spotlight is…well…justified. But Collins has pulled the questionable off, producing a work which is in equal caliber to his Wesley scholarship. It is a much needed book in a much needed time (I even recommended it to the Colbert Report).

The book is composed of six chapters, each dealing with their own independent, yet linking, thesis’. I will refrain from a chapter by chapter analysis (as I often do), since to do so would make this review unduly long. Instead, let me offer a broad sweep of the work. Collin’s main intent in the book is to offer a history of evangelicalism’s role in politics and to suggest that the problem with both the evangelical Left and Right is an idea that through politics cultural transformation can be achieved and a particular version of the Gospel can be implemented. But, of course, that’s hardly it. By offering up such a history, Collins opens up the past to critique and the future to a challenge. This includes not just the question of where evangelicalism has gone wrong but equally where it has done right in it varieties. And, as a true Wesleyan, Collins seems to put his foot forward towards a middle approach. For example, Collins recognizes that Fundamentalism, or “the religious right”, has been, in many ways, an unnecessary over-reaction to a changing post-christian culture. It’s denouncement of higher biblical criticism, science, and other large swaths of culture has had an extremely unfortunate effect on the way that American politics and evangelicalism have been merged together.  At the center of this is the idea that politics is God’s primary (or our most direct) instrument for change and that by changing the Presidential office or the House, America can be set back on the right track. In other words, the idea, which later came into fruition in the rise of the Moral Majority, was that largely through politics could cultural erosion be undone. Such an expectation left many, like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, as public spotlights of evangelicalism in the midst of a misappropriated and failed evangelical project. Instead of bringing about cultural change, the rush for political influence turned heated, wordy, and destructive to the reputation of evangelicals. During Carter’s administration, for example, a full battle between the Left and Right emerged as Carter was labeled by many to be  an “apostate” while Falwell was instructed in the President’s words “to go straight to Hell” (105). Instead of personal transformation, Fundamentalism has focused on reinstating another set of political legalism to produce change, one which was out of touch with both deep theological traditions and cultural reality.

But the Fundamentalists are not the only ones who receive a historical critique here and as much as one may initially think, Collins does not place himself among Leftist evangelicalism. While noting the difference between a Leftist evangelicalism of earlier decades, Collins goes on and criticizes many contemporary liberal evangelicals for placing the Gospel right alongside an a-theological model of social justice and relativizing faith’s relationship to political policies. While many on the evangelical left find redistribution of wealth to be synonymous with “love your neighbor as yourself”, few have actually asked the question whether there is a difference in mandatory charity versus altruistic charity. Beyond this, there tends to be an appropriated logic that of inconsistency with the evangelical Left often using faith as a motivator in certain liberal agendas and, then, disassociating their faith from politics where convenient. For example, abortion somehow manages to rest in the “personal opinion” spot with many of the evangelical Left, or at the very least takes a back seat in comparison with other issues. But how could personhood be a mere personal conviction? Certainly one can not say this for slavery, the Holocaust, or any other major denials of human value. There is in this conviction, then, an awkwardly misplaced logic. For example, while Obama states that “Those of us on the political left…trust that big government can be a tool of righteousness” his own policies have represented a disdain for traditional marriage, a rejection of life at conception (Obama has voted, for example, against laws which would aid in medically helping babies that survived abortion procedures), and an increasingly shrinking freedom of religious expression within the Church. Is the Church really the solution or is it really the problem?

Collins recognizes that neo-evangelicalism is in many ways the offspring of the Fundamentalist decline (though he also notes that Fundamentalism still remains a large subculture), wherein the remaining option was not to exit towards a Leftist politic but to re-evaluate the role of religion in politics and cultural life. This has had an incredibly positive effect, though I may note that it’s very unfortunate that media has a way of defining a group by its fringes. Billy Graham’s ministry, as an example, paved great roads for entering the neo-evangelical world when in 1957 he declared in Life, “We have decided to hold no more crusades unless all of any race can sit where they please…Where men are standing at the foot of the Cross, there are no racial barriers” (82). Around the same time, Christians began pursuing higher biblical studies, science, and interacting in those swaths of culture which Fundamentalism completely rejected and Liberalism over modernized. But from Graham’s day to our own, it’s been a battle not just against the evangelical fringes but against the State itself and a misunderstood concept of “secular” that goes along with it.

Perhaps Collins’ most important point in the book is simply this: political power does not translate into cultural power. “It does not” (240). To influence culture, Christians must infiltrate and contribute to larger and deeper segments of culture which are presently are devoid. Join the arts; create good movies; create good music; make scientific discoveries; write influential books; take University chairs; develop honest and purposeful businesses; be innovative. The fact is, both the Left and the Right have focused incredible attention in the political sphere only to find themselves at crossroads for both 1) What the essence of the Gospel is and 2) How to translate that to culture. Politics is only one game in town and it is one which is increasingly being won over not by Christians but by Secularists.

Much more could be said about this excellent book. Though I have disagreements with the book, it is one worth checking out. Given the recent election, this book is a necessary one not just for evangelicals to learn about their own history but for the average American to understand much of where we are and how we got here. Religious politics has been much more pervasive across the board than many think, but one must be wary to think that politics can transform culture and lives. For the evangelical Left and Right, equally, the lesson to be learned is simply this: the Gospel, while not devoid of necessary political action or involvement, is not synonymous with it. One cannot ring in the Kingdom of God through “power politics” of whatever stripe.