The thanksgiving/73 “Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern” was significant for numerous reasons, some of which I shall indicate below.

Its importance for the future doubtless depends upon whether evangelical Christians can marshall cooperation for certain social objectives even as they do for evangelistic goals, whether some independent spirits make it an occasion of provocatory reaction, or whether others unilaterally exploit the statement for partisan purposes. No single evangelical enterprise or leader—whether CHRISTIANITY TODAY or evangelist Billy Graham or whatever and whoever—today speaks definitively for evangelical social concern. Reasons for this are not hard to give, but no profitable purpose would be served by listing them here.

There is no doubt that the American evangelical outlook today is more disposed to social involvement than it has been for two generations. Yet those who have direct access to evangelical masses have not been providing principial leadership for authentic courses of action. This accommodates a great deal of confusion, the more so since ecumenical spokesmen, Carl McIntire, and others have successfully exploited mass-media coverage for conflicting positions that often have more support in emotion than in sound reason.

Whatever disposition some interpreters may have to shrug off the Chicago Declaration as saying nothing that had not already been said by denominational or ecumenical commissions on social action, negatively at least it avoided several mistakes to which contemporary religious activism has been highly prone. For some denominational spokesmen, changing social structures constitutes the Church’s evangelistic mission in the modern world; the call to the new birth in the context of a miraculous redemption—whether under the umbrella of Graham crusades, the Jesus movement, Key 73, or whatever—was considered a diversionary waste of time, energy, and money. The sole change demanded by the god of the social radicals is in social structures, not in individuals. The Chicago evangelicals, while seeking to overcome the polarization of concern in terms of personal evangelism or social ethics, also transcended the neo-Protestant nullification of the Great Commission.

A second defect of ecumenical social engagement has been its failure to elaborate the revealed biblical principles from which particular programs and commitments must flow if they are to be authentically scriptural. Insofar as the Chicago Declaration spoke, it attempted to do so in a specifically biblical way. The cleft between the ecumenical hierarchy and the laity, along with many clergy as well, derived in part from pervasive doubt that publicly approved socio-political particulars could actually be derived from “Christian ethics,” “the Church,” “the Cross,” or whatever other spiritual flag was hoisted by religious lobbyists. Instead of being rallied to support specific legislative or social positions in view of hierarchical approval, a generation of church-goers illiterate in scriptural principles of social ethics ought to have been nurtured in scriptural teaching and urged to seek a good conscience in applying the biblical principles to contemporary situations.

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The Chicago Declaration did not leap from a vision of social utopia to legislative specifics, but concentrated first on biblical priorities for social change. A high responsibility presently rests on evangelical clergy to deepen the awareness of churchgoers—and their own expertise as well—in what the Bible says about social morality.

The Chicago Declaration sought to transcend the polarization of “right” and “left” by concentrating not on modern ideologies but on the social righteousness that God demands. To be sure, Chicago participants reflected a variety of perspectives, and many differences remain on specifics. Most of the biting social criticism of the twentieth century has been left to Marxists; this creates a climate in which Marxist solutions gain a hearing and prestige wider than they would have were they not permitted to preempt a field to which the ancient biblical prophets spoke boldly in a time when pagan kings were thought to be incarnate divinities and to rule by divine right.

The paramount Chicago concern was not to advance one or another of the current ideologies but to focus on the divine demand for social and political justice, and to discover what the Kingdom of God requires of any contemporary option. In brief, the Chicago evangelicals did not ignore transcendent aspects of God’s Kingdom. Nor did they turn the recognition of these elements into a rationalization of a theology of revolutionary violence or of pacifistic neutrality in the face of blatant militarist aggression. Neither did they trumpet such fanfare as “capitalism can do no wrong” or “socialism is the hope of the masses.” The real interest was in the question: What are the historical consequences of the economic ideologies for the masses of mankind?

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To speak now of positive significance, one striking feature of the Chicago Declaration is the very fact of evangelical initiative in social action at a time when the secular and ecumenical social thrust is sputtering for lack of steam. Ecumenical activism accelerated to the peak of massive public demonstrations mounting direct political pressures upon Congress and the White House, at times involving civil disobedience and disruptive tactics. Failure of these power techniques to achieve effective social changes has understandably led to a disenchantment with public institutions, instead of reexamination of ecumenical policies, practices, and proposals for swift solution.

Evangelicals are contemplating anew the Evangelical Awakening, which is often said to have spared England the throes of the French Revolution. In that movement of social morality, evangelicals took an initiative in such matters as slavery, factory working conditions, child-labor laws, illiteracy, prison conditions, unemployment, poverty, education for the underprivileged, and much else. If ever America has stood in dire need of an awakening of both social and personal morality, the moment is now.

Another promising center of the Chicago conference was its interest in the problem of power and politics. Evangelicals see no promising way into the future of the nation unless the political scene reflects the participation of those who are involved for reasons higher than self-interest, a kind of political involvement now too much at a premium. While there is no disposition to launch an “evangelical political party,” there is mounting concern for open evangelical engagement in the political arena.

If evangelical leadership means anything identifiable, it ought to imply at least that one’s public moral responses in time of crisis are highly predictable. Sad to say, it does not always work out that way. But if it works out with a high degree of probability, the national scene could take a happy turn for the better.

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