Just finished writing a review of Ken Collins‘ work, Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration for the Westminster Theological Journal. It is an outstanding work that traces the history of evangelical Christianity in America since 1925. Collins’ main thesis is that in the wake of their loss of cultural influence in the early 20th century, evangelicals sought to compensate by reaching for political power. But this reach failed to recover the Protestant cultural consensus of the 19th century, or the intellectual credibility that evangelicals enjoyed prior to the Scopes trial. Instead, evangelical Christianity in America was fractured into liberal and conservative factions, indirectly contributed to the cultural marginalization of religion in general, and lost its prophetic vision and voice amid the many challenging social issues of contemporary times.
Collins identified several fascinating aspects of evangelicalism in his historical treatment, but the aspect that stuck out the most in my reading was his critique of both liberal and conservative evangelicals’ identification of the church with a political agenda. Liberal evangelicals, such as Campolo and Wallis, are too quick to see public policy through the lens of a social gospel. Conservative evangelicals, like Land and Falwell, frequently see America as God’s representative on earth. Both have a way of conflating America with the kingdom of God, albeit in different directions. But by politicizing the message of the gospel, both groups have contributed to the loss of a political theology in public discourse. Religion once was a public activity, in other words, religion had a voice in public policy (cf. the Progressive era). Now, however, religion is seen as a purely private affair best kept within the four walls of a church. Collins explains how evangelical Christians, in their desire for political power, helped to contribute to that wrong understanding of the role of religion.
Much of what Collins says in his work is relevant to the book I am now writing for IVP Academic on the history and theology of American exceptionalism as an aspect of civil religion and nationalism. By using theological categories to define American exceptionalism, evangelicals distort the meaning of Christianity and exalt America to transcendence. The dangers inherent in this are legion.
What is Collins’ solution? I think he is on to something here–evangelicals have work to do in two directions. First, evangelicals can recover a political theology by appealing to natural law arguments to advocate for the dignity of human beings as created in the image of God. His model is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appeal to white clergy in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In this, evangelicals can make headway (slow headway, to be sure) in offering reasoned defenses of their positions on pressing social issues such as the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, and religious liberty. Second, evangelicals must reject liberal and conservative factions and recognize that there is immensely more that unites them than what divides them. They can also reach out to Roman Catholics, who have been their allies in pleading the Christian case on social issues. Related to this, evangelicals must purify themselves and be true to their calling as ambassadors for Christ (King spoke of this in his letter, too), in order to allow the Spirit to empower them.
Collins’ work has a great deal to offer. The question is, are evangelicals even interested enough to pay attention? That remains to be seen.