What's New Is Old: 'America's New Evangelicals'
The 2008 election of Barack Obama reinvigorated an ongoing discussion within evangelicalism about the nature of its relationship to the political order. It is a discussion that will almost certainly receive a new infusion of energy during the 2012 election cycle. But analyses of evangelical captivity to politics and purported generational shifts in ideology have come close to reaching a saturation point, bringing evangelical introspection to the edge of exhaustion. Of the writing about evangelicals and politics, there is apparently no end.
Marcia Pally's America's New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good (Eerdmans) is one of the latest attempts to understand the direction of evangelicalism's political priorities. For Pally, the emergence of the "new evangelicals"—figures like Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, and David Gushee—reveals important shifts, in both substantive beliefs and habits of engagement. She sees this movement as "new" because its members embrace "beliefs and practices that have advanced religion, liberal democracy, and just economic distribution." She contrasts the new with the "old evangelicals" (though Pally does not call them that), whose political engagement she believes has been sullied by allegedly "prototheocratic yearnings" and an attachment to free-market capitalism. The new evangelicals, she argues, allow religious convictions to shape their political vision, but nevertheless "support pluralism, economic justice, and liberal democratic government." Whether the new evangelicals are championing ideals wholly different from their forebears, or simply imbuing them with different meanings, is not always clear. Pally's presumption, for instance, that "economic justice" is antithetical to free-market economics is astonishing, given the enormous debate over the question.
While Pally presents the "new evangelicals" as an antidote to perceived evangelical vices, her narrative is occasionally given to overstatement.
Take, for instance, those supposedly "prototheocratic yearnings." True, Pally's stance later softens into suggesting that evangelicals have "at times" attempted to "use the state to impose religious views on the nation." But even this skirts the boundaries of hyperbole. Unless Pally thinks that evangelical opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage are exclusively theological in nature—a highly debatable contention—she is left only with school prayer as an example of such attempts. Evangelical activism may have sectarian underpinnings, but evangelicals have shown a remarkable willingness to abide by the rules of liberal democracy in working—through legislatures, courts, and grassroots initiatives—to "impose" their views.
Not So New
Pally makes no attempt at any statistical survey, instead approaching her subject through blogs, newsletters, sermons, and other expressions of the "new evangelicalism." Transcripts of interviews with prominent figures like Richard Cizik and Joel Hunter punctuate her commentary, lending the reader a firsthand familiarity that is both interesting and illuminating.