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By Mark Tooley @markdtooley

Last week evangelical Wheaton College professor Noah Toly responded to my post in First Things on some evangelical elites lobbying in Washington, D.C. for currently debated immigration proposals. Among other critiques, he fretted that I laud a non-existent continuity in Catholic social teaching and exaggerate evangelical divisions in political witness. My original post was relatively short and mostly focused on First Things’ founder (and IRD’s co-founder) Richard Neuhaus’ concern about an overly expansive political witness that exceeds the rightful vocation of the institutional church. Here is what Neuhaus penned as IRD’s founding statement, called “Christianity and Democracy,” which supplements this point.

As a United Methodist, I am tremendously grateful for the evangelical witness in America, which beyond evangelistic and charitable deeds, includes a strong defense of human life and the traditional family. Evangelicals as an overall demographic are robustly entrepreneurial, independent and distrustful of large institutions, making the infamous Washington Post line about their being “easily lead” fairly comedic. The modern American evangelical movement is fairly young, dating to the post World War II period. So there really is no specific, long standing public witness tradition for U..S. evangelicals, whose adherents include Calvinists, Wesleyans, Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, Anabaptists and others of no discernible denominational background. The ongoing implosion of denominational loyalties and even memories in American religion offers a further challenge to evangelical coherence.

The Religious Right emerged in the late 1970s espousing conservative traditionalism not specifically guided by any particular tradition, although the Calvinist thinker Francis Schaeffer was a strong influence. A new generation of evangelical elites has emerged, many of whom understandably want a new, distinctive public witness. But the formulation of that witness has been unsteady. Catholic social teaching may be helpful. Calvinist theories about statecraft may also be instructive. Sadly, my own Wesleyan tradition offers a vivid though mixed history of activism but very little in articulated theory.

Methodism’s public witness of the last century should warn evangelicals of their potential future if not careful. (My book METHODISM AND POLITICS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY recounts this history.). Once America’s largest church movement, Methodism’s political witness coalesced around temperance and related moral causes in the late 19th century, rooted in Methodism’s longstanding concerns about liquor’s impact on society, especially the most vulnerable. Whatever its other problems, the Prohibition Movement emerging from Methodism was populist, widely-supported by church members, and for a season fantastically successful politically. It also was premised on a social version of Wesleyan perfectionism and politically unsustainable.

Post-Prohibition, Methodism’s political witness shattered into dozens of new ambitious advocacy causes, many of them even more utopian than the legal abolition of alcohol. Unlike Prohibition, these new causes were not populist but originated among ambitious church activists influenced by the Social Gospel. By the 1960s and 1970s, the church’s political witness degenerated into advocacy of unrestricted abortion rights, Marxist revolution, and sweepingly egalitarian schemes for reordering society by legislative dictate. Still mostly conservative church members, to the extent they were even aware of radically intense political advocacy in their name, were resentful and sometimes reacted by quitting their church. United Methodism lost over 3.5 million of originally 11 million members.

Much of what was once Mainline Protestantism followed this trajectory of a leftist and elitist political witness. The once formidable National Council of Churches, the embodiment of progressive Social Gospel advocacy, now faces possible collapse. Its officials, with much of the Mainline, long ago stopped trying to represent their church constituencies and instead prophetically spoke TO their constituencies. Their policy statements more closely aligned with liberal secular elites than traditional church thought. Intuiting this disconnect, policy makers and the media mostly stopped listening.

The implosion of Mainline Protestantism left evangelicals as America’s largest and most influential religious demographic. But at the height of their influence, evangelicals today are somewhat divided between a constituency that is still mostly committed to conservative traditionalism, and some elites who prefer a new more expansive political witness that they believe is more winsome but that often echoes the failing Mainline. Most prominent evangelicals urging a newer social witness don’t typically offer clear guidance on the limitations, if any, of the institutional church’s political role, or its priorities. There is often the implication, as with the old Social Gospel Mainliners, that the church’s role is to be politically engaged with certitude on nearly every pressing political issue at all times.

At least the old Religious Right had Francis Schaeffer, a serious thinker from a defined tradition. The new evangelical witness often seems like a hodgepodge of Jim Wallis, Glenn Stassen and David Gushee, claiming to be “God’s Politics,” and combining Anabaptist thought with Social Gospel themes, an odd combination. Evangelicals need a coherently defined public theology that is more rooted in some ecclesial tradition beyond contemporary American politics. And embedded within that public theology should be an Augustinian understanding of human and political limitations on this side of the eschaton.