Welcome Home: The New Old Evangelicals

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As I read Marcia Pally’s Evangelicals who have left the right, I’ve realized that I’m like the old man guarding the family’s abandoned homestead. The lights were off; the heat was low; the couches and chairs were draped in sheets. I haven’t left the right because I was never there. I remained in a home once alive with compassion for the poor and love for the environment. The kids are finally coming back and, like every old man, I’m rasping advice as we throw logs on the fire and unveil the furniture.

I became an evangelical Christian in a “born again” experience on July 6, 1973, when I was almost 17, before civil religion’s invasion. Like many, I was dubious of Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson. But, like many, I said nothing. I turned a blind eye to the intimidating militancy cowing many in American Christianity, hoping it would melt into the Yellow Brick Road. I sometimes told myself I was being a “peacemaker” – and peacemakers supposedly never stir controversy (forget about the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus himself).

Then I was bit. I pastored a church that measured doctrinal purity in the voting booth. I became so controversial I felt obliged to resign, then visited fellowships in which political opinions were given as “prophetic words.” Something was deeply wrong: the back-to-the-Bible movement that brought me to a relationship with the living God had been driven into the John Birch Society’s cultural cul-de-sac.

Complacency was no longer an option. I began networking with like-minded evangelicals, involved myself in local politics as a pro-life Democrat, and wrote on the Huffington Post. I now proudly bear the label “New Evangelical” – although I don’t think we’re really new (“historic evangelical” is the more accurate term) – and I rejoice that the militancy is finally melting as it shrieks. I see hope. Evangelical Christianity can rid itself of civil religion, come back home, and become genuinely renewed.

But the home-coming is still tentative. We should be aware of at least six issues as we think and pray: First, New Evangelicals must dodge the mistakes of the so-called Evangelical Left of the early 1970’s, with which I sympathize: Their bull-headed finger-wagging alienated many. Second, please avoid the temptation to christen the Democratic Party like the Religious Right anointed the GOP (I have no illusions about my party). Third, we should never demonize those with a cogent, traditionally conservative political philosophy, which has much to commend it. I often urge my conservative friends to read Edmund Burke and others, who would not have recognized today’s zealots. Perhaps renewed evangelicals can resurrect the moderate Republican and exemplify respectful debate and negotiation. Fourth, the New Evangelical movement must emerge from the academy and think-tanks and find its way onto the radio and into the pews. Bill and Lynne Hybels have made inroads in this area; so have many in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship and in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Fifth, beware the temptation to bellyache. We’re prone to that. The militants have hurt many, including me, but no one likes a whiner. I understand the temptation to nurture wounds. I’ve done it. But forgiveness is far more liberating and a lot more fun. Sixth, remain thoroughly biblical. Some have ripped off the fundamentalist straight jacket and are roaming into wishy-washy theological and moral “liberalism.” New Evangelicals will rightly lose their audience if they advocate unorthodox theologies, alternative sexualities, and pro-abortion policies.

I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m a puzzle, a living skew, a seeming distortion. Such is the New Evangelical lot for the time being. We don’t fit. One friend said to me: “I can’t figure you out. You’re either a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat.” My Democratic town committee questioned me on my pro-life stance before electing me; some in the Religious Right think people like me have made a pact with the Devil: we’re the enemy, veritable wolves. Others are just baffled. But confusion is inevitable in this era of shrieking, melting militancy. In fact, given the potential for a real homecoming and genuine renewal, confusion is good – as long as we laugh.