Monday, 30 July 2007

The need for a new right-wing politic. Part I: the demise of Evangelical involvement

When Dire Straits penned the lyric, “Right becomes wrong, the left becomes the right”, they expressed in a nutshell the state of most Christian political opinion. These days, the wrongness of being right-wing is taken by many churchpeople to be virtually self-evident, and the possibility that Conservative Christians might be ‘right wing’ is sufficient to damn them in this life, if not necessarily in the next.

Yet the actual content of this putative ‘right wing’ political position is as hard to pin as down as is the precise nature of that other political bête noire, fascism. Indeed, George Orwell’s comment about the misuse of the latter term would apply equally well these days to the former: “All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.” (What is Fascism? 1944).

When we try to be precise about the nature of right-wing politics, two things emerge. The first is that some of what is identified is merely a caricature. The second, more significantly, is that not everything which might be called ‘right-wing’ is, in fact, necessarily un-Christian.

Moreover, where there are particular faults on the political right, this does not automatically mean (as Dire Straits acutely observed) that “the left becomes the right”. If we look at the human cost of left-wing politics, the problems, and the bodies, pile up just as quickly — perhaps even more quickly — than with regard to the political right. And thus if the ‘left’ can distance themselves from their own villains, might not the ‘right’ do so equally?

The reason for raising these issues is the end of a Christian political experiment which began in the 1970s, marked by the acquisition of Third Way by the company that publishes the Church Times. Given that although Third Way began as an Evangelical venture, the Church Times remains steadfastly the theologically Liberal flagship of institutional Anglicanism, it is clear that it is the former which has shifted, not the latter. The same shift, incidentally, is seen in the comprehensive coverage now given by the Church Times to the Greenbelt festival — another formerly Evangelical initiative.

Back in the 1970s, I was both an attendee at Greenbelt and a subscriber to Third Way, so I can speak with personal experience of what they were like. In both cases they represented a combination of broadly ‘Schaefferian’ philosophy with a contemporary Evangelical theology. Politically, however, they were firmly on the ‘broad left’ — a position also characterized by many of the contributions to the preparatory documents for the 1977 National Evangelical Anglican Congress.

One of the prevailing emphases was that not only must society be changed if our gospel is authentic, but that it cannot be changed merely by changing individuals:

The attack Jesus makes on unregenerate materialism, the call he makes for sacrificial living amongst people, the call for generosity in human relationships, can all teach a new way for the whole of man’s life, inclusive of his social and community living. The Christian Gospel has a witness in the realm of politics and structures as well as at the level of my individual behaviour. In so far as I call the whole community to give up some of its wealth to meet the needs of the poor and of the deprived groups of our world, in so far as I campaign for a form of society in which structures serve the interests of the needy and protect the weak from the machinations of the strong, then I give social witness to the distinctive values of the gospel. (John Gladwin, ‘Power in Our Democracy’ in Obeying Christ in a Changing World, Fountain Books, 1977, 36)

This was a bold vision. Moreover it was not wrong! Christ did attack ‘unregenerate materialism’, and call for generosity and teach a new way for the whole of life, including the way we live as a society (though the Old Testament roots of that teaching might have been more clearly acknowledged in some cases).

The problem for Evangelicals specifically in the subsequent decade was that they failed to maintain the attempted synthesis between socio-political insight and theology. Quite simply, the ‘Third Way’ rapidly began to look like the old, ‘Second Way’ of socialism. The transformation of society did not occur. Instead, it was the Church which was being changed.

This had a number of consequences. Tragically — and I do believe it was a tragedy, albeit of small proportions — the energetic critique of arts and culture started on by English Christians in the 1960s and 70s dissipated almost entirely. In the early 1980s, for example, the Christian Youth Fellowship Association (CYFA) sponsored a series of ten-day ‘Arts Workshops’ as one of their summer camps. I know because I was one of the leaders! As I understand it, the plug was pulled partly because of the costs. It was a shame, though, that the vision of these workshops was not continued. Yet at the same time, perhaps, it was inevitable, given that the theological foundations were simply not there (again, I can speak from experience, and must accept some of the blame!) Other Evangelical ventures in the arts seem to have suffered a similar fate.

Similarly, in the political realm, the attempt at a Christian engagement with society was commendable, yet evangelism clearly began to suffer amongst Evangelicals and our theological grip became even more tenuous.

As a result, in the early 1980s many Evangelicals gave up their commitment to social issues. Instead, a new core of theological Conservatism, focussed almost exclusively on evangelism and Bible teaching, began to collect around the work of Dick Lucas and the Proclamation Trust.

At the same time, by the late 1980s and early 90s there were further divisive pressures coming to bear on the Evangelical constituency as a result of the Charismatic Movement. In the 1980s it was largely the impact of John Wimber and ‘power evangelism’. In the 1990s we had the Toronto Blessing. Both these split Evangelical opinion and loyalty in a way that has perhaps been forgotten with the new obsessions about human sexuality and, to some extent for Anglicans, women’s ministry.

The Evangelical movement which has emerged in the twenty-first century, particularly regarding the Church of England, is thus a shadow of what was promised in the 1970s. In some areas it is theologically stronger. The use of the Bible is greatly improved from what it was in the 1960s, for example. Yet there is an enmity amongst Evangelicals which would have been unimaginable in the 1960s and the cultural impact of Evangelicalism is undoubtedly far less. Amongst the Conservative Evangelicals there is little interest in engagement, and amongst the less-Conservative there is little originality — witness the absorption of Third Way into the Liberal establishment mainstream.

Yet the challenge remains. Indeed, for Anglicans, with their inheritance of moderate Calvinism and their vision of Church and society, the challenge is acute. Surely we are called to bring all of life under the Lordship of Christ, and we are to be agents of change in the world. More bluntly, we are not called just to be evangelists who bring people to Christ so they can bring people to Christ, and Bible teachers who teach others to teach the Bible to others. There has to be more to discipleship than that!

Yet the ‘Third Way’ turned out to be a dead end. Or perhaps the problem was that the Third Way wasn’t ‘third’ enough — perhaps it was indeed the Second Way of socialism baptized in a weak dose of Evangelical pietism. Perhaps another look at our theology would reveal that viewpoints characterized and caricatured as ‘right wing’ are an essential ingredient of a Christian engagement with society.

That is where, if I get around to it, I hope to go in a second essay.

Revd John P Richardson
30 July 2007

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  1. Darren Moore (Tranmere)31 July 2007 at 12:10

    This is where I've found some of the Cambridge Papers really helpful, especially as they've tried to apply OT law to now. Some OT ideas seem very left wing, whilst others seem really quite right.

  2. This is a very interesting piece, John. Thank you for a stimulating read.

    I wonder, though, whether in making a good point you're over-stating the case for the demise of the Evangelical left - or the 'Third Way', as we once called it.

    Whether or not 'Third Way' magazine and Greenbelt have lost their salt (and I would argue that they haven't entirely, for what it is worth), that sort of stream of Evangelicalism is obviously still very visible in the works of people like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo and the much-criticised Steve Chalke.

    You mentioned Francis Schaeffer. As Wikipedia says, Schaeffer numbered Dooyeweerd and Van Til among his influences, and I would suggest that that strand of Dutch Reformed tradition lies in the backgrounds of a remarkable range of Christian leaders, from Bill Hybells and Jim Wallis in the USA to John Bell and Elaine Storkey.
    For that reason, it seems to me to be a very active strand, not least because of the variety of its expressions, from Calvin College, Grand Rapids, via Willow Creek to the Iona Community. Maybe it still has something to say to Evangelicals in the C-of-E, and particularly those working in areas of great social needs?

  3. Elwin Cockett is the Archdeacon of West Ham, for those who might be wondering how the lack of location got past the posting police (;-)).

  4. Daniel Roe (Croydon)2 August 2007 at 21:48

    Here's a concise politic for the right: 'Authorities who will punish those who do evil and praise those who do good' (1 Peter 2:14) - simplistic? Well, given that our rulers and broadcast media are a tad left of centre and the papers of full of examples of good people being punished and bad people being rewarded, why not?