Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

27 Mar 2014

Chapter Note: Joel Carpenter, “What’s New About the New Evangelical Social Engagement?”


9780199329540I just finished browsing through an engaging new title, The New Evangelical Social Engagement. No, it’s not an obscure book by a rock-ribbed fundamentalist who remains skeptical about the conservative resurgence in evangelical life (though it might cast a few of these skeptics in a more favorable light). It’s a carefully edited OUP title with contributions from an impressive list of heavyweights in sociology and church history. Its burden is to explain the edgy new countenance of evangelical social activism that has emerged in the last decade or so—a ‘new’ new evangelicalism.

The chapter of greatest interest to me was Joel Carpenter’s summary chapter, “What’s New About the New Evangelical Social Engagement?” in which he argues compellingly that the social concern of the ‘new’ new evangelicalism is actually a new iteration of the ‘old’ new evangelicalism—another in a series of “periodic eruptions” of the same evangelical mountain (276). The first formal wave,[1] centered on Carl Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, began in the 1940s. A second and stronger wave came through in the 1970s, but this wave wasn’t quite so unified: it sported on the one hand a “sterner” moral majority centered around Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others of their ilk, and on the other hand a more “moderate” moral minority (to use David Schwartz’s clever appellative), centered about the organization “Evangelicals for Social Action,” led for nearly four decades by Ron Sider.

Today’s surge in evangelical social concern most closely resembles the last of these wavelets, Carpenter argues, but is ultimately cut from the same cloth—there is “not one trend or emphasis among them” that did not appear earlier (275). There are differences between the various new evangelicalisms, to be sure, but socially, not so much: the waves are largely homogenous. This consensus persists, Carpenter explains, because of a steady notion that “evangelism and social action are…two parts of a larger mandate, which is giving witness to God’s kingdom” (271). Take away this unifying mandate and the last century of evangelicalism, in all of its manifold expressions, dies a spectacular death. And so the answer to Carpenter’s title question, “What’s New About the New Evangelical Social Engagement?” is effectively this: not much, at least insofar as these new evangelical iterations are viewed as social and cultural constructs. And such constructs are, Carpenter suggests, what stands at the center of evangelicalism: “The heart of evangelicalism, in the end, is not theological,” he says, but the idea that “true religion [can be] made real to ordinary people” (277).

If this suggestion is correct (and I warm to the idea), then we may need to revisit the popular notion that “the” new evangelicalism is to be isolated in the non-separatist, anti-fundamentalist theological movement that flourished between 1942 and 1976, then convulsed and died during the inerrancy battles of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Further, we will do well to look backward to discover the likely course and end of the current new evangelical wave—and the next one too.

A very tantalizing read and well worth a closer look.

[1]I would argue that there was an earlier wave centered in post-WWI Europe, but it was less well-organized and involved “evangelicals” whose evangelical status would be questioned by many evangelicals today. Still, I think it’s safe to say that Henry’s new evangelical ‘wave’ was not without its own precedents.

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