There is clearly a "Christian Left" growing among evangelicals in America. We have heard a great deal about the "Christian Right" for more than two decades. I frequently critique this movement unfavorably. But what is the Christian Left?
The Christian Left is almost as hard to define, in one certain sense, as the Christian Right. And it is equally hard to tell, at least at this point, how many people actually fit this new designation and just how many potential voters this movement really represents. Is there real political power in this movement? Time will tell. It seems to be a small right group now but the movement is clearly gaining in terms of public notice. It is especially appealing to some evangelical Christians who draw a lot of attention to a select set of issues that they have linked to the Bible in a certain way.
There can be no doubt that since the 2004 presidential campaign this movement has grown in popularity. It is becoming increasingly outspoken in how it frames the political issues of the day in terms of Christianity. The father of this movement is Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, a magazine read by several thousand. Wallis is also the author of one of the most misnamed books I know: God’s Politics (Harper, 2006). If someone my age and background wrote a book with this title I think I would be maligned for my sheer audacity and incredulity. But Wallis is a kind of hero among many young zealous Christians thus his title seems quite acceptable to them. His book is a manual of solutions, and social views, that represent an activist role for government in solving the issues of poverty, education and international peace. In fact, if one issue represents the core of Wallis’ interpretation of Scripture it is the issue of ending, or at least of drastically reducing, poverty.
This summer a major event of the Christian Left will be held in Washington, D.C. It is titled: Pentecost 2007: Taking the Vision to the Street and will be held June 3-6 at National City Christian Church. The goal of this conference is to "call individuals, churches, and most importantly, our political leaders to commit to putting poverty at the top of our national agenda." The promotional literature adds, "We believe that the conversation about moral values in America has been widening and deepening, building into a movement for real change." The promoters of this event believe that Christians "from across the political spectrum are being moved by this call for justice and are forming partnerships." It further suggests that there are many "new found partners and allies" that are coming together and thus this event will be a place for that to happen.
It is interesting to note what presidential candidates have accepted invitations to speak at Pentecost 2007. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards will appear at the presidential candidates forum on June 4th. Other featured speakers during the conference will include Brian McLaren, Rev. Rich Nathan, Lynne Hybels, Gary Haugen and Ron Sider. There is also an "emerging leaders" track that features a younger leader. Workshops and visits with Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill are planned. You an learn more about this event at www.sojo.net/pentecost.
I have no personal problem with the Christian Left staging such an event. They are perfectly right to promote their solutions to poverty. The problem I see here is the staggering hubris behind suggesting that their way of answering the poverty question, which I believe Christians should seriously address since the Bible speaks a great deal about it, is the only solution for Christians who really care about this issue. (You get the same approach when global warming is presented.) Long before these advocates of the Christian Left got excited about promoting governmental solutions to poverty there were large numbers of Christians promoting alternative solutions through the market, private enterprise and the church. These types of solutions, which are rooted in both Catholic and Reformed theology, preserve personal freedom and keep government from becoming the central player in the solving this problem. There is a long tradition of Christian social thought that is not based on the federal government leading the way in charity and economic growth for people, including the weakest among us. From reading the literature of the Christian Left you would never know this tradition existed at all since the literature paints with such a broad brush, much like some in the Christian Right.
Here is what I would really love to see. A open forum designed for Christians where alternative views and solutions are genuinely discussed and debated in the light of Christian theology and tradition. We could start with the various contributions of the Catholic Church, especially since Vatican I, and then move to the thought of Abraham Kuyper and the progressively Reformed witness in this same area. I would like to challenge the promoters of this event, if they are serious about real Christian solutions, to invite some articulate speakers to such an event who do not represent the Christian Left. By this means they could address the issue of poverty and how to solve it in a way that might build the kind of consensus we truly need. The Pentecost 2007 deck is very heavily stacked. If you believe we need the kinds of solutions traditionally offered by the Democractic Party since the 1930s then you will likely love this event. If you prefer the moral agenda of the Christian Right then you will not love it at all. I urge young Christian leaders to consider these facts and then realize that these two positions do not represent the best Christian thought on these very important subjects. We desperately need to have a church-wide discussion about these matters in the coming decade.
In the last election cycle Sojourners featured a campaign with a clever bumper sticker that said: "God is not a Republican. And he is also not a Democrat." I seriously wonder if they meant it, especially since the type face they used tended for the sticker gave away their concern to attack the Christian Right and the Republican Party as their primary to the effort. When I read their literature I get the strong feeling that they routinely confuse the social solutions of Clinton, Obama and Edwards with those of all faithful Christians just as much as some on the Right confused the coming of the kingdom and Christian principles on a few moral issues with the election of George W. Bush.
Do you know who has hired all the consultants over recent months in order to appeal for the religious, or the faith, vote in the 2008 election? If you said, "The Republicans" you had better try again. If any one of the three leading Republicans candidates (Guilliani, McCain or Romney) is nominated it will be interesting to see who injects the "religion card" the most aggressively into the next election. I don’t really care for the way the Christian Right tried to link the kingdom of Christ to the Republican Party over the past twenty years. I sense that we are going to get the reverse in the next eighteen months. It is at least worth watching and it would be wise that we ask lots of questions.
Missional Christian theology is not equal to the Christian Left’s political and social agenda. Sadly, some have concluded that the two really do go together. It is the church that will suffer loss once again if this mistake is perpetuated in the manner that we now see developing. Christians need to engage the politics of many important ethical and social issues but they should do so only after they have worked much harder to understand the serious nature of what is required to form a public policy that is deeply rooted in historic Christian theology.
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While I appreciate the good things the Emergents are contributing (missional stress, care for godly relationships), I am increasingly appalled by their Leftist politics. Much of it is posterboard economics with no real understanding of how markets work. I a tired of their moralistic posturing.
I think it is simply part of the pendulum swing. Evangelicals have been in the Republican pocket for so long, there is going to be a backlash. There is a lot of good passion that is going into the desire to end poverty. Encourage the desire, educate around the solutions, don’t knock those who are trying to make a difference.
I appreciate very much the balance of this post. A couple of random observations and questions. 1. I think Wallis is in his 60’s so what did you mean by the age and standing comment? 2. The Sojourners/Social Justice stream of evangelical Christianity has been around since at least the 70’s, but it has not enjoyed the prominence is does today. Carter’s election in the 70’s was in part due to the social justice stream of the Evangelical movement. I believe it was also partly responsible for the first Reagan’s first term as many social justice evangelicals voted for 3rd party candidate John Anderson in that election. 3. The polarization of both the Christian right and the Christian left bothers me, as does the assumption that government policies will solve the problems both are concerned with. 4. The setting against each other of concerns that both grow out of a Christian conviction bothers me. Why are the concerns of the christian right and the christian left mutually exclusive or at least seem to be. 5. The positioning of the discovery by emergents of “social justice” bothers me. 6. The question of who to vote for in 2008 bothers me.
I’m neither a sojourner nor a Repulichristian, and I find both positions lacking (as do you, apparently). I would note, however, that the same Kuyper whom you invoke here said to a gathering of Christian statesmen that if help comes from nowhere else, the government must take action to fight poverty, but he commanded them, “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior” (_The Problem of Poverty_). Indeed it is. The problem I see is that most evangelical churches are simply not involved in caring for the poor and powerless in any major way, save for a few notable exceptions. Hence, although I don’t like the government solutions in practice, I must agree with Kuyper that they’re better than nothing and that we should be ashamed of our self-indulgent lives which neglect the well-being of our neighbors.
I agree with a great deal of what Bill writes. There are some very good insights in his comments. When I referred to youth in this context I was not referring to Wallis himself. I had in mind the new generation of Emergent younger people who are quite taken by Wallis’ social agenda, as well as the written work of Tony Campolo, Ron Sider and several others in the Christian (evangelical) Left who’ve been around since the 1970s, as you very correctly noted.
And I totally agree with MF’s trenchant and provocative comments. We should be ashamed that we are so wealthy and yet so uncaring for the poor in our midst. Did you know that the loan debt on our church properties in the U.S. (alone) would fund all our world missions enterprises totally? Amazing, staggering and quite reprehensible really. Until the church repents how can we think political parties will solve these problems?
This is at the heart of my criticism of the Right and the Left. The Right argues for a free-market, often in less than robust and knowledgeable ways, but has little or no sense of accountability for using its great wealth to care for others as the Bible clearly teaches. The Left wants bigger government solutions for poverty and yet the charitable giving on the Left is even worse than that on the Right, as most giving surveys have revealed. It seems many on the Left want to take from the rich to support the poor while they are not willing to give it away on their own. (Is this a function of a bad conscience, perhaps?) On the Right people may give slightly better to charity yet they want more and more for themselves, larger and larger sums for retirement, and bigger and better church buildings for themselves and their children. Now we even pay youth ministers to care for the kids we do not teach or catechize as we ought. And then we pay others to lead and do our evangelism and charitable work as well. The whole system is wrong, both in terms of mission philosophy and real concern for the poor.
By the way, all evidence from tax returns says the most generous givers in American are among those who make the least. The Day of Judgment will open the books and the heart will be revealed in terms of where our allegiance really was all along. But then if you preach this you may not last long in most churches on the Right or the Left.
Let’s not forget what the government is and does. It uses coercion (threat of force) to accomplish its goals. This is why Scripture limits its scope to one thing only: the punishment of evildoers (Rom 13). The use of government to accopmplish Christian goals, by either the left or right, by adding state laws to God’s law, is simply a belief in salvation by law.
As for your comment on tax returns, Jesus instructs us in Matthew 6 to keep our alms giving secret. Those who declare their righteousness to others for the sake of a reward, have that as their reward in full. If this is so, why would anybody declare their righteous deeds to the IRS? To gain a monetary reward? Sounds like what the Pharisees were doing. And, yes, it’s all too common advice given to Christians as “wise” handling of one’s money. I fear that on Judgment Day, many Americans will hear, “truly, you already received your reward in full.”
We should all strive to give voluntarily, without government oversight or knowledge, in secret, to God’s glory.
Steve, you make a good point but what Jesus is talking about is not equivalent to the IRS knowing my charitable giving and giving me more money to give away via a tax write-off. They allow and encourage charity for very good reasons, historically, and if the government will allow me to give more and have less income taxed then it is good stewardship to take advantage of the arrangement. I am not parading my piety before men to use the IRS to legal and proper advantage for charity. It is meant to be a legal incentive and has served the nation very well over time. This itself is a result of Christian influence within the culture.
As for the poor out-giving the rich it is just a fact, tax returns or not. The poor tend to be more generous than the rich, at least in spirit and principle, though obviously not in dollars given.
Thanks for your response above, John. I agree with you wholeheartedly, and I’ll quote here Calvin’s wise words on wealth and Christian liberty (_Institutes_ 3.19.9):
“[Christian liberty] is, therefore, perversely interpreted by those who use it as a cloak for their lusts, that they may licentiously abuse the good gifts of God, or who think there is no liberty unless it is used in the presence of men, and, accordingly, in using it pay no regard to their weak brethren. Under this head, the sins of the present age are more numerous. For there is scarcely any one whose means allow him to live sumptuously, who does not delight in feasting, and dress, and the luxurious grandeur of his house, who wishes not to surpass his neighbor in every kind of delicacy, and does not plume himself amazingly on his splendor. And all these things are defended under the pretext of Christian liberty. They say they are things indifferent: I admit it, provided they are used indifferently. But when they are too eagerly longed for, when they are proudly boasted of, when they are indulged in luxurious profusion, things which otherwise were in themselves lawful are certainly defiled by these vices.”
If he could describe his contemporaries this way, how much more so is it true of American Christians today!
It is strange to me that you call Jim Wallis a part of the Left. He is pro-life and advocates a consistent life ethic. Jim Wallis often says, “Do not go Right or Left, instead go deeper.” The only evidence of Left leaning during Pentecost 2007 is that only Democratic candidates are present. This is unfortunate. However, “This fall, we [Sojourners] are planning to sponsor a similar candidates forum for Republican Presidential contenders. We will again limit our invitations to the top polling declared candidates.” I will be there and I do not consider myself Right or Left. Christians need to abandon these labels because these labels divide us in serving The Church and make us sell out to the Empire, instead of The Kingdom.
The approach Jim Wallis advocates to the free market, to personal liberty and to end poverty are all plainly the ideology of the left. This ideology is not conservative in any sense but under normal political definition is to the left of center historically. I do not like the left and right terminology myself at times but please tell me what else to call the positions Mr. Wallis has strongly advocated for many, many years? They are not “biblical” in an exegetical sense any more than many conservative views of government are biblical. Even friends of Sojourners and these events call the movement the “Christian Left.” This is not a pejorative debunking by me but a simple fact. To be pro-life is a good thing but that may be the only major position to the right held that is by Wallis and those who fill this program and the agenda being offered.
Pro-life is not owned by the Right. There are Republicans who are pro-choice, such as Rudy Giuliani. God owns these views and Christians should not align themselves with any “Left” or “Right” politics of the world. We should align with God. Is it “Right” or “Left” to be anti-war? There are Old Right candidates who are non-interventionists, such as Ron Paul. There are Left candidates who do not support a timetable for troop withdrawal, such as Hillary Clinton, and there are other Left candidates who support immediate unconditional troop withdrawal, such as Dennis Kucinich.
To say that one person is “Left” or “Right” is an oversimplification that better serves as a wedge to build a voting bloc, then to serve the Kingdom of God. When we think in terms of the “Left” and “Right,” we miss God’s view of The Kingdom. Both Left and Right politics have more to do with selfish ambitions, than the Kingdom of God.
People who say that Jim Wallis and other social reconciliation Christians (e.g. Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell) are part of a “Christian Left” miss the entire point of Christian social reconciliation. The fact that there is a Christian Right, shows that some Christians sold out to the Empire. Some Christians have sold out the Left, but this the last thing that social reconciliation Christians (a.k.a. the Revolution) are interested in doing. Real Christians are aggressively non-partisan.
For a better explanation, please read the Preaching Revolution article at http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3061/preaching_revolution/