Review: Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice
Brantley W. Gasaway. Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014. xii + 324. ISBN 978-1-4696-1772-5.
Taking to the “Twittersphere” in early May 2015, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis declared that “#Baltimore unrest was caused by a combustible combination of social failures that we are ALL responsible for.” For Wallis, the violent reaction to the death of Freddie Gray serves as yet another reminder of the widespread economic, educational, and social injustice that plagues the United States. The Baltimore riots are a testament to America’s lingering “original sin” of racism. When Wallis “tweeted out” those words, he summoned nearly four decades worth of theologically inspired social action. Jim Wallis is both a creator and a product of a peculiar evangelical movement. Figures such as Wallis and Ron Sider and their respective organizations fashioned a movement rooted in the belief that faithfulness to God required equal concern for people’s temporal needs and the pursuit of justice through social and political activism. Brantley W. Gasaway describes this movement as “progressive evangelicalism.”
In Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice, Gasaway provides a lively survey of progressive evangelical intellectual history. Drawing upon the publications of the three most prominent progressive evangelical organizations over the past four decades (Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action, and The Other Side), a story emerges of a complex movement seeking to reconcile orthodox Christian theology with a progressive social platform. Gasaway’s narrative is thematically ordered in eight chapters around the argument that progressive evangelical leaders crafted a “public theology of community” that produced an identity in contrast to both the Religious Right and political left. Highlighting the diversity of opinion within the movement itself, Gasaway clearly demonstrates the dynamic and often fluid nature of progressive evangelicalism that was gradually defined by their theology and the issues they wished to address.
Before venturing into what is a largely underexplored historiography, Gasaway makes a significant contribution in constructing his analytical category. Both scholars and journalists have often employed the terms “Religious Left,” “evangelical left,” “liberal evangelicals,” or the “Christian left” to describe progressive evangelicals. These terms, however, do not accurately capture the identity of the progressive evangelical movement. While they may distinguish the movement from the Religious Right, they do not properly account for its incongruous relationship with the political left. Gasaway attempts to correct this oversight by using “progressive evangelical” or “evangelical progressive” to describe the movement’s leaders. In doing so, he argues that progressive evangelicals were “politically homeless,” separate from the Religious Right, while remaining outside a strict “leftist” categorization. The term “progressive” properly situates the movement’s unique political stance, signaling the group’s commitment to social, political, and economic programs aimed to combat injustice and inequality. As Gasaway demonstrates throughout, the political homelessness of the progressive platform came as a direct result of their evangelical doctrine. Gasaway uses “evangelical” to describe the group’s defining theological principles—namely, the authority of scripture, original sin, faith in Jesus Christ, and dedication to evangelistic and humanitarian efforts. Gasaway clearly acknowledges how a progressive social agenda shaped by classical evangelical doctrine deserves a more precise category that transcends the common labels of left and right.
In the first two chapters on the rise of progressive evangelicals and their formation of public theology, Gasaway explains that they rejected the prevailing evangelical notion that the gospel only addresses the spiritual wellbeing of individuals. Through the literary productions of The Other Side, The Post-American (later Sojourners), and various ESA literature, a shared identity was shaped around evangelically charged social and political activism. Throughout, Gasaway emphasizes that progressive evangelicals operated politically under the conviction that their work was a mission from God. Claiming to propagate nonpartisan, “biblical” politics, progressive evangelicals constructed a progressive political agenda baptized in evangelical language. As a result, whenever the movement faced criticism, the issues were quickly reconciled through appeals to faith or prayerful discernment. Such a claim is evidenced through the evangelical criticism leveled against the continual evolution of both Wallis and Sider’s public opinion on same-sex marriage.
Subsequent chapters highlight specific social issues that mark evangelical progressives. Gasaway demonstrates how racism, feminism, abortion, LGBT rights, poverty, and war defined the progressive evangelical platform. Though answers to these concerns were often contested within the movement, nearly all progressive evangelicals saw these issues as central to their faith. Not only did the leaders and publications fight for biblically inspired justice, they used these issues to construct the boundaries of their group identity. Consistently evaluating the responses of those inside and outside the group, progressive evangelicals upheld their public theology as a litmus test for authentic Christianity. A conservative theology coupled with a progressive political platform gave rise to a movement that navigated the tumultuous divide between the Religious Right and the political left. In the process, Gasaway reveals, progressive evangelicals sought the expansion of government and centralization of power in order to achieve their understanding of the common good. While much of the historiographical attention is often given to the right-wing, Gasaway has clearly shown that American evangelicalism is more complex than Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell. Gasaway helps blaze a trail through this messy web of theology and politics.
While Gasaway presents a finely tuned and clearly argued work, a few questions remain unanswered. Considering that much of the narrative is constructed through the lens of progressive evangelicalism’s leaders and publications, to what extent did the movement actually influence public opinion? How important are progressive evangelicals in the broader narrative of American religious history? Furthermore, it is difficult to gauge whether progressive public theology shaped local communities. Was the movement as cohesive as Gasaway’s narrative makes it appear? What kind of dialogue, if any, existed between leaders and average consumers of progressive evangelical literature? Were people organizing for political action as they read Sojourners or The Other Side? These quibbles aside, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice is a significant contribution to the study of American evangelicalism.