Divided by a common language

I over-reacted in my post yesterday, as I admitted when challenged by Alan Jacobs in the comments. Ross Douthat himself was not only generous enough to notice and respond to the post, but was very kind in his response. I do certainly take the point that he and Alan were making concerning the centrality of the social gospel to a specifically American tradition of liberalism, and I am glad both have been willing to indicate that they took my point about the deeper intellectual roots. Douthat is an excellent journalist who I respect greatly.

The misplaced passion of my reaction came, on reflection, from a different division between American and British traditions of Christianity, concerning evangelicalism – a subject I spend more time on, and care more about, than liberalism. I am passionate about reclaiming an evangelical tradition of progressive social involvement that I see as native and intrinsic to the movement – on both sides of the Atlantic (slavery is an easy example, either way: Wilberforce, Hannah More, and the rest over here; Finney inventing the altar call because he was not going to let anyone profess conversion to Christianity without signing them up for the abolitionist cause over there). In the early decades twentieth century, both sides of the Atlantic, social transformation slipped off the evangelical agenda for various reasons; it was recovered by the new evangelicalism of Billy Graham, the NAE, and Christianity Today, and then later over here, not least through the teaching and example of John Stott.

The reasons that an alliance grew up between American evangelicals and the Republican party are well-enough rehearsed, and have largely to do with certain touchstone ethical issues becoming partisan in the USA (if abortion and euthanasia became partisan issues here, I suspect there would be just as monolithic an evangelical block vote in Britain). We shouldn’t forget, of course, either that there was some overlap between Christians involved in the anti-Vietnam protests and Christians involved in protesting Roe vs Wade, or that the first mobilising of a block evangelical vote was in support of a Democrat, Jimmy Carter. That said, for various reasons – culture wars not least amongst them – the alliance between evangelicals and political conservatives has shaped – not monolithically, but to some extent, and certainly in public perception – evangelical politics in the USA.

As a British evangelical, indeed as someone actively involved in coordinating national public policy discussions amongst British evangelicals from time to time, I have to confess that, on the one hand, the loss of the older progressive and transformative agenda from the American wing of the movement concerns me and, on the other, the easy assumption made regularly on both sides of ‘the pond’ that what is true in America is true over here annoys me greatly. It annoys me because it hinders our mission, closes doors that would otherwise be open to us, prevents us from forming progressive alliances which would be of great benefit to those most in need in our society. I could give several specific examples of these points, of opportunities for gospel work – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour – which were either lost, or made more difficult, because of the ignorance of somebody over the difference between the social/political stances of British evangelicalism and (the popular perception of) the American strand of the movement.

I don’t apologise for getting passionate about this – indeed, I would be seriously concerned about the state of my soul if I ever stopped getting passionate about this. Where that passion leads to my being unnecessarily harsh on someone who is commenting very fairly on a related subject, I do apologise. I think that was the case in the tone of at least some of my comments yesterday.


  1. Andrew
    Jul 18, 2012

    Steven, well thought, well written post (not a regular reader of your blog). You said the following “I am passionate about reclaiming an evangelical tradition of progressive social involvement that I see as native and intrinsic to the movement”

    Well I certainly appreciate this from a Christian perspective, see a danger here too. Is not the ‘danger’ of liberalism – “humanism”? What I mean is that a native and intrinsic progressive social movement can have God honouring and God dishonouring motives; namely a sincere desire to serve Christ or a desire to serve humanity (almost in an idolatrous sense).

    Historically, many progressive social movements can be identified as having been initiated and driven by Christian principles but evolved into secular humanistic endeavours. An evolutionary trajectory like this inflames debate between ‘liberal’ Christians, and ‘non-liberal’ Christians, and vacates the Christian value of social involvement.

    For example, consider the furious debates about homosexuality within Christianity; the Gospel must go to all sinners regardless of sexual orientation, but what is the Gospel? The Gospel provides grace to save, but also grace to sanctify – which means it isn’t a ‘homosexuality only’ issue, but a sinner issue, except that the humanistic component transfers focus away from achieving Christ-likeness onto egalitarian concerns.

    So the question is how to mitigate the influence of humanism in liberalism?

    • Steve H
      Jul 19, 2012

      Thanks for stopping by, Andrew.
      I think the gospel commands us to serve humanity (obviously not in an idolatrous sense!). Where we encounter people with genuine needs, we are to do our best to meet them, as part of our service to Christ (Mt. 25 – I am aware of exegetical debates about the meaning of ‘adelphoi’ there…).
      There is, of course, a question about what tends to true human flourishing. We have no gospel mandate to promote that which is harmful or dangerous to ourselves or another. I think that this is the question you are asking.
      My answer would be that simple: we learn from the gospel which human desires are appropriate (hunger, health, liberty, …) and seek to promote them; we also learn from the gospel which human desires are in fact sinful and so dehumanising, and we set our face against them.
      Of course, in any given example – including the ones you cite – there is legitimate room for discussion as to what the gospel in fact teaches us. I have my views, but whether I am right or wrong, I think I can stand on the general principle here?

  2. Andrew
    Jul 19, 2012

    Thanks for your response Steve. I found your answer very practical in that it provides very good insight in how we serve others, and do so without getting ourselves into trouble. It doesn’t address my underlying concern though.

    Looking at the debate in N. American Christianity between ‘liberals’ and ‘non-liberals’ it is curious we have such passion dividing Christian’s. I found your comment about ‘certain touchstone ethical issues’ being the reason American evangelicals and the Republican party have found common ground. You consider yourself a British evangelical with a passion for reclaiming an evangelical tradition of progressive social involvement, yet in an American context, that hardly seems to work. So it’s reasonable to ask what divides American evangelicals from progressive social involvement?; something normally seen (by American evangelicals at least) of liberal Christianity. (I’m not American incidentally)

    I think the answer is ‘humanism’. American evangelicals are wary of ‘humanism’ and so are wary of things that smack of it. You don’t need to sell me on why Christians should be interested in progressive social involvement (James was practical when he said ‘faith without works is dead’) but I do think there’s a certain relationship (historically) between humanism and progressive social movements. Given that a little leaven, leaventh the whole loaf, would like to know how to mitigate the influence of humanism in liberalism?

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