Evangelicalism: The New Social Gospel

I grew up evangelical. I was, at one time, a teenage “Jesus Freak” who found the pinnacle of worship and highest expression of my faith to be loudly bellowing DCTalk’s lyrics from my bedroom. Now I’m not really sure what I am. I’d like to perhaps call myself post-evangelical. I’m certainly post-denominational. I agree with a lot of what is being said within the missional conversation. Yet I also abhor labels and so try to avoid lumping myself in with a group. It saves me being judged by someone on what someone else has said, just because I’ve self-identified as X. But I digress…

As I grew up I often heard ominous warnings about the social gospel and the religious left. Generally, these warnings included the important point that the proponents of the Social Gospel had traded the true gospel (faith in Jesus) for a false one (help others and bring about God’s Kingdom on earth). I, being a child at the time, made sure to heed these warnings of apostasy. I regarded with suspicion those who would think to take on left wing ideals like, you know, helping the poor. To be fair, the issue was never with helping the poor but rather with making said helping into a political issue. Here we come to the crux of the matter. Politics had intervened in the church. Suddenly Christians were being divided along political lines. Some disagreed with this, and for good reason I think – the church should not fight with itself because some are Democrats and some Republicans. Many others disagreed with this because it would have challenged them to vote for a Democrat. This was seen, in the circles I walked, as unprudent at best and deserving of downright damnation at worst. One major criticism of the religious left being that they had allied themselves with the Democrats to accomplish certain things without regard for some of the negative things for which the Democrat party stood. That is to say, they tended to vote “liberal” because their focus on helping others seemed to line up with the political left.

Now, let’s fast forward to the present. A week doesn’t go by when I don’t hear about some Evangelical leader making a statement on at least one political issue. Most recently there have been rumblings surrounding the issue of global warming (I basically agree with what Scot McKnight has said on the subject) . Normally these Evangelical leaders also encourage people to vote Republican, and their ideas tend to be Republican. So, I asked myself last week – what separates the Evangelical Church from the thing they used to warn against? I’m about to generalize.

Evangelicals are known more for their stance on political issues than for their love of God or their love of others. I know people who, when they say “evangelical” are referring to a voting block. Normally this said reference is spoken with disdain because of their feeling that said voting block ignores all issues that may directly or indirectly influence evil in the world while focusing solely on the “moral high ground” issues, such as a abortion. Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture? It seems to me that the Evangelical church has forgotten to be, you know, evangelical and has instead opted to be political. They tend to vote “conservative” and expect others who label themselves Evangelical to agree with their political stances. The church has a mission – to make disciples. I think we also have a means of doing that – by loving God and others. Evangelism is not protesting a law. It is living like Christ and introducing other people to him. My concern is that I often see more political campaigning among Evangelicals than I see love of others. I often hear more impassioned speeches from Evangelicals about global warming or the importance of America having a strong military than about loving others and serving them in Jesus’ name.

I think the Evangelical church has taken on many of the aspects that they were critical of in the Social Gospel movement. The Religious Right has become, in many ways, a mirror image of the Religious Left – with little to separate them other than their party affiliation. They now espouse their own kind of social gospel, one that says the church must take the moral high ground and bring American society “back to God.” They desire for American society to become righteous via legislation. They equate the Gospel of Jesus with voting a specific way, or with wanting Intelligent Design taught in schools, or with a certain stance on the ethics of just war. Lest someone assume that I am only critical of the right, I also think that those churches who spend more time talking about electing democrats than talking about loving others are skewed and in need of balance.

Perhaps, to some extent, both right and left use their political involvement as an excuse not to be involved in doing the work themselves. The mentality goes something like this, because I campaigned for a candidate who is going to get more money for the poor I don’t have to go and volunteer at the soup kitchen myself. Alternatively, because I voted for a candidate who is pro-life I don’t need to go out of my way to help and show love to a young woman who has become pregnant and has no way to support herself or her unborn child. How one voted, or ones political ideas, become – in some ways – a badge of honor worn by Christians to shield themselves from the responsibility of being Christian. Jesus summed up the entirety of the Torah in a single statement “love God and love others.” Nothing absolves us from that responsibility.

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