Move over U.S. Religious Right, here’s the evangelical center
That is one of the central points of a new book by David P. Gushee entitled “The Future of Faith in American Politics”.
To Gushee, the evangelical center combines much of the theology of the Religious Right with the social concerns of the left, give it a broad engagement in many of the pressing issues of our day.
Gushee does not demonise the Religious Right – which he says is simply exercising its citizenship responsibilities in a free society – but he does critique its entanglement with the Republican Party, its hectoring tone and what he sees as its narrow focus on issues like abortion and gay marriage.
But he also takes issue with the left’s silence on or reluctance to act on such issues.
Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, is himself firmly in the evangelical centrist camp: but this book is written with that disclosure and its stated purpose is “to stake a claim” to this emerging evangelical center.
Last week we interviewed the authors of a new book charting a way forward for the Religious Right by Tony Perkins and Harry Jackson. This week Gushee shares his thoughts on his book and other matters with Reuters:
Q: You contrast an emerging evangelical center with both the Religious Right and the Religious Left. Do you think these other movements have reached their peak?
A: I think that the Religious Right as it has existed for the last 30 years has definitely reached its peak and is declining. I think if you understand the Religious Left as the old mainline then it is definitely in trouble. There is some creative ferment on that side but on the whole they are certainly not thriving. The evangelical left of Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, folks like that, is showing lots of vigour right now. As of today it seems to me that the center and left are both stronger than they’ve ever been and the right is fading and looking for some fresh ways to reframe itself.
Q: How do you see the Religious Right reframing itself?
A: I think there are some fractures emerging among the people who identify themselves as Religious Right. I think some are starting to deemphasise partisan politics to a certain extent. Others are attempting to reframe their message. I think the new book by Tony Perkins and Harry Jackson (mentioned above) is a reframing effort. A lot of the things I critique in my book, they say ‘you’re right we need to work on those things.’ Things like disentangling from the Republican Party, having a more positive and less negative kind of tone, emphasising a broader range of issues. I think there is a feeling on the Religious Right that those things are a problem for them.
“One of the interesting things about the Republican presidential race was John McCain. McCain ends up as the winner despite bitter opposition from some of the most visible Religious Right leaders like James Dobson. And one reason he did emerge as the winner is because his stance is more evangelical center. You will probably have two presidential candidates this fall who are center-right or center-left and the fringes have lost. Which I think is good news for America.”
Q: Do you think this fading of the fringes is a reflection of what is going on in America in general?
A: In terms of the broader culture I think there is a deep exhaustion with culture wars.
Q: Why is abortion such an important issue to evangelicals? Does your opposition to it not make it seem like you are part of a backlash against broader women’s rights?
A: I think this grief over this state of affairs in American culture is very real. Now often it has been unaccompanied by similar compassion for women and families. Grief for the 15-year-old who is pregnant and desperate; grief for the woman who has been raped; grief for a society in which men and women have sex but women disproportionately bear the consequences if pregnancy happens. Sometimes evangelicals have been insensitive to the needs of women and the rights of women. And our rhetoric has been baby-centered rather than centered on all who are in that situation.