In country and western legend Willie Nelson’s song “Me and Paul,“ Nelson writes and repeats “I guess Nashville was the roughest, but I know I’ve said the same about them all.” In light of November 6th, I resonate with Willie in saying this election season is the roughest, “but I know I’ve said the same about them all.”
What frustrates me the most, aside from the asinine commercials, is how the Evangelical movement has engaged. Sadly, Evangelicals in the USA have colluded with politics to the point that one is ostracized simply for who they vote for or, God forbid, refusing to choose “the lesser of two evils.” Fragmentation that places political allegiance above one’s truest identity of being found in Christ and His Church. The issue of power, politics and the way the Evangelical movement in the USA has mixed them together is the topic of Kenneth Collins’ new book Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism (IVP, 2012). Taking the reader through a journey from the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920’s to our current political climate under the Obama administration, Collins rightly critiques the whole spectrum of Evangelicalism showing how the movement came to its current fragmented state, while also proposing a solid and ancient way forward.
The Big Idea
Collins starts the book noting that the perceived failure at the Scopes Monkey Trial led Evangelicalism—specifically the evangelical right and its mixture of fundamentalism, revivalism, and triumphalism—to collude with national politics and cause confusion as what the telos of Christianity is. Is it democracy or the Kingdom? Are the two different? The desire for political power, albeit with good intentions, corrupted much of the Evangelical witness. Its desire to reform society led to alienation and the resulted irony of seeking relevance while finding irrelevance. Collins writes “The grasping after political power on the part of the evangelical left and right for the sake, among other things, of greater voice has unfortunately hurt both movements.” (254)
On the opposite side of the same coin, the Evangelical left found its rise in the midst of the debacle that was the moral majority and its offspring. Rightly crying that the Evangelical right was neglecting much of the Gospel by focusing exclusively on family and abortion, the left found its voice in Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and former US president Jimmy Carter. Yet, what began as a bipartisan effort has too often found itself in bed with the political process and one can hardly tell where equality and social service end and the Gospel begins. The powerful, prophetic voice of the Gospel that calls all humanity to repentance and entrance into the Kingdom of God through a resurrected Jesus Christ has been diminished in the mess of liberal politics. Agendas are lifted, while the Gospel is hidden. “The politics of the evangelical left and right is like a mask that is offered those beyond the church; it is a public expression that invariably distorts not only their own image but that of Jesus Christ as well.” (254)
While traveling through much of the sordid history of the Evangelical movement, Collins does offer a way forward: a way that is catholic, Kingdom-focused, and very Wesleyan. Collins claims that the Evangelical movement must develop a Christian political philosophy if the movement desires to turn off the preverbal repeat of nasty and divisive politics. According to Collins, “a Christian political philosophy, then, in contrast to others, will undoubtedly be motivated by the universal love of God that embraces all people, and it will therefore break out of the tribal mentality of the ideologues.” (246) If Evangelicalism seeks to change its past, which is littered with the collusion of power, politics, and fragmentation, then it must learn to place a crucified lamb before “old glory,” even when “the nation is at stake.” To truly change America, the Evangelical movement must remember that it is “not by might and not by power, but my Spirit says the Lord.” Collins helps us see this, and in the midst of an American political climate that is “the roughest,” I recommend his book without reservation.