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Evangelicals apparently have so much political clout that they are poised to install a theocracy, according to some commentators. Such critics don't notice there is little distinctively evangelical about the evangelical approach to politics. The evangelical emphases—on conversion, the Cross, the Bible, and activism—do not themselves amount to a full, independent theological system. Nor do they take us far in understanding politics, which requires at least some grasp of history, government, law, justice, freedom, rights, mercy, violence, and war. Thoughtful evangelicals trying to understand politics often draw on the wider resources of Calvinist, Anabaptist, Anglican, Lutheran, or Catholic teaching.

Still, venerable publications like The New Republic go overboard when they claim that evangelicals merely march to the drumbeat of Catholic thinkers like Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel. Yes, evangelical distinctives can be compatible with a range of other doctrines. Hence, we can speak easily of evangelical Anglicans or Lutherans, even of evangelical Orthodox or Catholics. The Economist plausibly took Sen. Sam Brownback, a recent convert to Catholicism, to symbolize growing evangelical international activism on religious freedom, sex trafficking, AIDS, Sudan, and North Korea.

Evangelical activism through the centuries has undoubtedly produced some laudable results. The evangelical commitment to religious freedom predates the Enlightenment, and the ethic of personal responsibility helped produce the civil society that Alexis de Tocqueville so admired during his 19th-century visit to America. But it also produces major problems. Currently, evangelical activism hampers responsible political engagement ...

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September 2006

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