Thursday, November 13th, 2014
The history of contemporary progressive evangelicalism has now been the subject of two excellent scholarly books: David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Penn, 2012), and Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit and Social Justice (North Carolina, 2014).
Although I am in the middle of a typical busy graduate school semester, I couldn’t resist the temptation to immediately read Gasaway’s book when it arrived in my mailbox last week. Having previously read Swartz’s book, I can attest that the two books complement each other quite well. For example, while Swartz analyzed in greater depth the pioneering personalities involved in the movement, Gasaway focused more on tracing the development of a progressive evangelical public theology (as articulated in the leading publications associated with the movement). If you have an interest in the subject I highly recommend reading both books, which are available in affordable paperback or e-book editions. And if you want a more thorough introduction to the themes and arguments of Gasaway’s book, you will find Swartz’s two-part interview with Gasaway at the Anxious Bench blog quite helpful (here is part 1 and here is part 2).
With the substance of the book set aside, I’d like to mention a more peripheral item that caught my attention while reading Gasaway’s introduction. Specifically, I was struck by his brief discussion of the connection between the rise of contemporary progressive evangelicalism and shifts in historiography related to American evangelicalism. As Gasaway pointed out, in the 1970s progressive evangelicals looked to the history of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism for “a ‘usable past’ that helped to justify their own activism.” Indeed, it was through the pages of progressive evangelical organ Sojourners (then the Post-American) that historian Donald Dayton first published the essays on nineteenth-century progressive evangelicalism that formed the foundation for what became his 1976 book Discovering an Evangelical Heritage.
While that book, which drew on the work of previous scholars like Timothy L. Smith, was intended for a popular audience, its rediscovery of socially conscious nineteenth-century evangelicals made it an influential force in both the academic world and among evangelicals on a more popular level. For progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, it “helped us understand that our longing to embrace the world was grounded in both Scripture and history” and “revealed the public evangelical faith that is our great inheritance.” Within the academic world, it was part of a larger trajectory in which Dayton became a leading critic of what he called the “presbyterianization of evangelicalism and evangelical historiography” represented by figures like historian George Marsden (in 1991, Church History published an article by Douglas Sweeney on this historiographical debate.)
Reading Gasaway’s brief mention of Dayton and of the way that some progressive evangelicals sought to position themselves as the true heirs of evangelicalism made me think about the different ways that the full scope of Christian history has been appropriated by the evangelical left and the evangelical right. While much attention is given to evangelical conflict over how to interpret the Bible, it’s clear that interpretations of Christian history hold at least some authority in evangelical debates as well. But since I’m unaware (largely for lack of searching) of a robust analysis of this topic, please feel free to use the comments to help me out.
As it turns out, Dayton’s 1976 book could have renewed relevance in today’s evangelical debates: next month Baker Academic is publishing a second edition, re-titling it Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage. “There is a desire, especially among young adults, for a form of scripturally based Christianity in which social justice is perceived as the natural outworking of deep faith,” Douglas Strong writes in the introduction, “an evangelicalism much like the one Dayton discovered from the 1800s, uncovered for the 1970s, and that can be rediscovered again for today.”
Molly Worthen’s blurb for the new edition seems to me a fitting way to end: “…the fight to determine who counts as an authentic American evangelical…continues today.”