From nonplayers to radicals to New Right conservatives: The saga of evangelicals and social action.

“Heave an egg out a Pullman window,” H. L. Mencken wrote in 1924, “and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.” To the bewilderment of many, this is still true. And if Mencken were living today, he might put a different spin on it: “Heave an egg out a window anywhere on Capitol Hill today and you will likely hit an evangelical political activist.” There was a time when political involvement by evangelicals was seen as worldly, or even sinful, activity. Now political celibacy is more likely to be considered a dereliction of Christian responsibility.

An Uneasy Conscience

For over 40 years in the middle of this century, conservative evangelical social thought was primarily influenced by dispensationalism and pietistic individualism; these points of view tended to look with disdain on efforts to improve social conditions and political structures. Change had begun to occur in 1947 when Carl Henry wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. It was a clarion call for evangelicals to confront the modern world with a Christian apologetic that was intellectually respectable and socially responsible. According to Henry, the theological separatism of fundamentalism had led to a separation from cultural and social responsibilities, and to a mistaken disengagement from the important issues of the day.

Making connections between faith and politics was quite novel and, at the time, controversial. Evangelical leaders like Henry, E. J. Carnell, and Harold Ockenga had their persistent critics among separatist fundamentalists on their right. But critics began to form on their left as well.

The many issues ...

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