Born-Again Brethren in Christ: Weeks #14 and 15 — Too Much To Do

MC-historyClick here for some background on this post.

Well, it’s been almost two weeks since I’ve checked in with my progress with “Born-Again Brethren in Christ” project. Frankly, there hasn’t been much. Between the recent Sider Institute study conference, which occupied a lot of my time, and my other duties, I haven’t had much time to focus on writing. Moreover, I’ve had another project competing for my time. Some readers will remember my participation in a symposium this spring on the religious roots of Christian colleges and universities. The convener of that symposium wants to shop around an edited book based on the papers presented at that session, which means I’ve been spending the last two weeks polishing that piece.

Needless to say, I haven’t had much free time to devote to the “Born-Again Brethren in Christ” project. Alas. Maybe next week.

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Rethinking Church Membership: Reflections on the 2014 Sider Institute Study Conference

Participants in the 2014 Sider Institute study conference listen to Dr. J. E. McDermond's talk on conversion and church membership.

Participants in the 2014 Sider Institute study conference listen to Dr. J. E. McDermond’s talk on conversion and church membership.

The 2014 Brethren in Christ Study Conference is a wrap! Held October 9-10, 2014, the conference was a first in many ways:

  • It was the first study conference to be co-sponsored by both the Sider Institute at Messiah College and the Fresno Pacific University Biblical Seminary.
  • It was the first study conference to be held at the Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church.
  • It was the first study conference to be live streamed across the country, allowing us to include participants from outside the central Pennsylvania area.

This year’s conference also drew a substantial crowd of over 70, with participants from Brethren in Christ, Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, and United Zion fellowships.

The main presentations included:

“Does Church Membership Still Matter?: Reflections on ‘Belonging’ in 21st Century Christianity” by Kurt Willems

“Conversion and Life Between the Resurrections: Belief, Belonging, and Behavior” by J. E. McDermond

“A Missiological Approach to Church Membership by Daryl Climenhaga

Accountability and Church Membership in the 21st Century” (panel discussion) featuring Hank Johnson (moderator), John R. Yeatts, Keith Miller, and Josh Crain

“Where Do Our Loyalties Lie?: Belonging Beyond the Local Congregation by Valerie Rempel

Check out the Sider Institute Facebook page for images of the conference.

All of the main presentations were filmed, and will be posted on the Sider Institute website in the near future. These presentations will also be featured in a forthcoming issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life, the journal of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society.

In my role as director of the Sider Institute, I’ve received some positive feedback from attendees — as well as suggestions on how to improve for next year’s gathering.

Readers: If you attended the study conference, please leave some reflections on your experience — favorite presentations, most profound insight, suggestions for improvement — in the Comments section below!

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Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism / David R. Swartz

moral-minorityA version of this review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Reflections, the journal of the Missionary Church Historical Society.

With Moral Minority, David R. Swartz has produced one of the most eye-opening histories of American evangelicalism in recent years. The book charts the course of an understudied movement within American religious history: the so-called “Evangelical Left.” From our current historical moment, with the lingering influence of the religious right on American politics, a robust and influential Evangelical Left may be difficult to envision. But as Swartz ably demonstrates in his lively, easy-to-read study, this theologically conservative but politically progressive bloc has worked since the 1960s to integrate social justice and conversionist faith into a broadly pro-life evangelical political agenda. This Evangelical Left emerged in the years before the tradition’s right-wing turn, and though never monumental nor monolithic it has had a greater impact on the whole of evangelicalism than scholars typically presume.

Swartz argues that the groundwork for this progressive evangelical politics was laid in the years after World War II by Carl F. H. Henry, theologian and architect of a resurgent neo-evangelicalism. Henry exhorted evangelicals to abandon their political quietism and to assume a greater role in the public square, offering a “commanding call to a new social mission” (21). A second generation of “born-again” leaders would carry out Henry’s charge. At a time when evangelicalism was still “a politically contested and fluid movement” (25), these leaders would turn the tradition’s politics in a leftward direction.

The stories of these emergent evangelical leftists occupy the first part of Swartz’s study. Each chapter offers a biographical vignette of one movement leader: radical peacenik Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners; civil rights activist and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship president John Alexander; anti-Vietnam Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.); and feminist Sharon Gallagher, organizer of the Christian World Liberation Front. Their alternative political perspectives illustrate how, amid the social and cultural tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, evangelicals began to shift the focus of debate from personal faith to public action. Swartz also showcases the broad coalitions among national and international evangelical groups forged by the incipient movement: Samuel Escobar’s Latin American theology, Richard Mouw’s Dutch Reformed theology, and Ronald J. Sider’s Anabaptist theology each influenced the evangelical left in key ways.

These somewhat-disparate strands of progressive evangelical sentiment formally coalesced with the signing of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Conscience in 1973, at a meeting of evangelical leaders at a YMCA Hotel in Chicago. The document united a movement-in-the-making while also delivering a more trenchant indictment of evangelical social apathy than Henry had offered a generation before. It upbraided evangelicals for their inattention to racism, their tacit endorsement of gender inequality, and their blind allegiance to nationalism, militarism, and conspicuous consumption. It urged evangelicals to repenting for failing to accept “the complete claim of God on [their] lives,” and rallied all believers to embrace “a Christian discipleship that confronts the social and political injustice of our nation” (quoted in 267). Such a decisive statement from such an unlikely source quickly caught the attention of both secular and religious media. According to Swartz, “a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times suggested that ‘some day American church historians may write that the most significant church-related event of 1973 took place last week at the YMCA Hotel” (181).

Indeed, this evangelical “progressive united front” emerged years before the rise of the more conservative Moral Majority. At the time it seemed that consensus centrism, not far-right Republicanism, might become the political persuasion of American evangelicalism, and that leaders like Mark Hatfield and Sharon Gallagher—not Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—might become this movement’s public faces. “That evangelicals would strongly mobilize on behalf of the Republican Party,” Swartz asserts, “was anything but assured” (218).

So what happened? Swartz offers two answers. First, he claims, identity politics fractured the coalition. African American evangelicals felt alienated by what they perceived as sustained racial inequality, even among their leftist colleagues; thus, they poured energy into separate organizations like the National Black Evangelical Association. Similarly, evangelical feminists—turned off by the preponderance of male coalition leadership and frustrated by repeated unsuccessful attempts to gain a greater voice within the movement—turned their attention to building groups like the Evangelical Women’s Caucus. Repeated and seemingly irreconcilable theological clashes between establishment-focused Calvinists and countercultural Anabaptists further fragmented the coalition. Without a unified center, the movement lacked a coherent platform and a resonant voice. Swartz concludes, “Preoccupation with minority rights and identity, while essential to their platform, hurt the political viability of the evangelical left” (210).

Second, evangelical progressives’ fusion of conservative theology and social action made them ideological orphans in the polarized political arena of the late 1970s. Until then, progressive evangelicals imagined themselves as occupying a viable space in electoral politics. However, as Swartz explains, evangelical leftists’ conservative theology alienated their would-be allies in the evolving Democratic Party, which would enforce a pro-choice orthodoxy and embrace a “cultural libertinism” (219) by the late 1970s. Meanwhile, a growing religious right gained traction within the Republican Party largely because of their capacity to forge a united front—a feat that leftist evangelicals could not emulate. As a result, in the 1980s and beyond, “progressive evangelicals . . . were left behind by both the left and the right” because of their inability to “fit [into] an evolving two-party political system” (214).

Swartz’s argument here is convincing insofar as it explains how a once-promising movement has been eclipsed in both the scholarly and popular memory by the much larger and more vocal religious right. And yet at the same time, the argument reveals one of Moral Minority’s difficulties: its use of the term “left.” These progressive evangelicals were neither “left” in the New Left sense, nor “right” in the sense of identifying with the politics of Nixon and, later, Ronald Reagan. Even before the political polarization of the late 1970s, these ministers, activists, academics, and others defied simple categorization. Their concerns were too expansive to fit a single party platform. And yet the appeal of the term “left” is obvious, since no word truly characterizes their stance. Were they “evangelical centrists”? Or just non-right? The existing classifications seem inadequate.

Whatever we might call them, these justice-oriented evangelicals did not disappear in the 1980s and 1990s—a surprise twist in Swartz’s account. Anyone familiar with the landscape of twenty-first-century evangelical politics can attest to the lasting influence of Wallis and his Sojourners organization, which continues to engage evangelicals on issues like global poverty, immigration, and race relations. Sider’s still-thriving Evangelicals for Social Action is the grandfather of all evangelical justice organizations. And a new generation of activists—like Shane Claiborne and his Simple Way intentional community—now follow a path first blazed by these progressive forebears.

The current popularity of figures like Claiborne points to Moral Minority’s greatest strength: its timeliness. As the diverse movement known as evangelicalism once again enters a period in which it is “politically contested,” Swartz’s book provides an important scholarly point of reference for this new context. Academics, church leaders, and laypeople alike would benefit from reading this lucidly written, exhaustively researched, and richly contextualized study.

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“What Is an Evangelical?” (Redux)

Bebbington-Evang-Modern-BritainA week or so ago, I posted a link to John Fea’s blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home, in which the Messiah College historian shared some thoughts on the definition of the term “Evangelicalism.” And even though I posed the question, none of my readers shared their thoughts on the other characteristics they might add to the term.

Now, Fea is tackling this question once again by reporting on two sessions he attended at the recent Conference on Faith and History. (I’ve blogged about my own involvement in this conference here.) In a three-part post, Fea recapped “Defining Evangelicalism at the Conference on Faith and History.” Those posts are available herehere, and here.

I’d encourage you to read the posts in their entirety. In the first two, leading historians of religion — including Darren Dochuk, Molly Worthen, and the indefatigable Mark Noll — share their thoughts on the so-called Bebbington Quadrilateral, a four-part characterization of Evangelicalism first developed in his 1989 book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain that has become a standard definition in historical communities.

In the third post, scholars of American religion reflect on the significance of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, a kind of travelogue of religion scholar Randall Balmer’s “journey into the Evangelical subculture in America” (as the book’s subtitle declares). All of the scholars point out how Balmer’s more journalistic account of Evangelicalism in America differs from the more scholarly treatments (by people like Bebbington). A different understanding of Evangelicalism, they suggest, emerges when the concept is examined “in real life” rather than from a scholarly distance.

The posts are so full of rich insights that it’s hard to recap them in a post such as this!

Nevertheless, this excerpt might entice you to read the posts in their entirety:

For example, the college where I teach–Messiah College–is certainly evangelical in essence, but it is also diverse enough–both in terms of student body and faculty–that it does not seem to identify with “evangelicalism” in the way that a place like Wheaton College might identify with the term or the movement.  While some of our students and faculty might find a theological and ecclesiastical genealogy in the organizations and churches affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals or Christianity Today or Billy Graham, others come from Anabaptist, Pentecostal, theologically conservative or moderate mainline Protestant, or even Roman Catholic backgrounds.  Messiah is a very evangelical place.  It strongly adheres to the authority of the Bible, the belief that Christians should be sharing their faith and addressing social problems, the centrality of the Cross, and the need for conversion (although not everyone would completely endorse a belief in the New Birth).  But is it part of a movement known as “evangelicalism?”  Maybe.

Readers: What do you think of these attempts to define (or re-define) “Evangelicalism”? Share your thoughts below!

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The 2014 Annual Meeting of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society

Worthy-of-the-Calling-2Last night, the Brethren in Christ Historical Society released Worthy of the Calling, a book of biographies to which I contributed a full-length biography of Luke and Doris Keefer.

Readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience know that I’ve been working on this project for a long, long time. I realized at last night’s even that it’s been almost four years — just slightly less time than I’ve been married to my wife! It’s certainly the most consuming project I’ve undertaken thus far in my career, and it’s gratifying to see the finished product in print, finally.

Here are a few pictures from last night’s event, most of them borrowed from the Brethren in Christ Historical Society Facebook page. (Since I was part of the program, I didn’t have much time to snap photos!)

Dr. Morris Sider introduces the new book of biographies.

Dr. Morris Sider introduces the new book of biographies.

AnnaRuth Sider shares a few words about her biography of brother and sister-in-law, Harvey and Erma Sider, long-time missionaries and  administrators in the Brethren in Christ Church

AnnaRuth (Sider) Osborne shares a few words about her biography of brother and sister-in-law, Harvey and Erma Sider, long-time missionaries and administrators in the Brethren in Christ Church

Me with fellow authors AnnaRuth Osborne and Beth Mark

Me (center) with fellow authors AnnaRuth Osborne (left) and Beth Mark (right)

Congrats to my fellow authors, Beth Mark and AnnaRuth Osborne, and many thanks to our dauntless editor, E. Morris Sider, for his work in making this publication a reality!

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TONIGHT: Annual Meeting of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society

And the release of Worthy of the Calling, the book to which I contributed a biography of Luke and Doris Keefer. (For a quick catch-up, see my coverage of the book and of the Keefer biography here, here, here, here, and here.)

The event begins at 5:30pm. According to the spring 2014 issue of the Historical Society’s newsletter:

The authors and editor will all participate in the program. Members of the Historical Society will receive a free copy of the biography at the annual meeting, while copies of the book will be mailed to members who are unable to attend. The book will also be available for sale to non-members who attend the meeting.

I’m looking forward to seeing the book in print for the first time. I’ll be certain to share a photo or two from the evening here at the blog!

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The Summer and Fall of Book Reviews!

yoder-together-work-lordOne of the reasons I haven’t made as much progress on my “Born-Again Brethren in Christ” project as of late (like I mentioned yesterday) is because of the numerous book reviews I’ve been working on this summer and fall. I’m hoping to post a bit about these reviews in the coming weeks.

For now, here’s a short list of the books I’ve been reading and writing about since July:

David R. Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. The review will appear in Reflections, the journal of the Missionary Church Historical Society.

Duane C. S. Stoltzfus, Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of the Hutterites During the Great War. The review will appear in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture.

Nathan E. Yoder, Together in the Work of the Lord: A History of the Conservative Mennonite Conference. The review will appear in Mennonite Quarterly Review.

Jonathan M. Yeager, Early Evangelicalism: A Reader. The review will appear on H-Pietism.

Look forward to some reflections on — and perhaps even the reviews of — these books in the coming weeks and months!

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