The role of evangelicals in the public square has been a major development in American life over the past twenty-five or thirty years. A recent spate of popular books has looked at this phenomenon very critically. The number of books from the political and religious left, arguing against the rise of the newer evangelical right, makes for a full shelf of books by now. Most of these popular and poorly written books sound like dire warnings about a coming religious takeover of the country. (Do not fear, blue state America is still pretty strong and this feared religious change is about as likely as a snow storm in Chicago on July 4th!)
The actual history behind all of this is really much more interesting than the fears. Historically, fundamentalism led conservative churches in America, since the 1920s, to pull away from public life in general, especially from politics. While mainline liberalism embraced a “social gospel,” evangelicals gave up on social and public involvement almost entirely. (The late evangelical scholar Carl F. H. Henry called upon evangelicals to re-enter the public sphere, writing several important books to that effect, more than fifty years ago, but few listened seriously to his intelligent plea until the popular revolts of 1980s gained traction.) In addition to this tendency to react to liberalism social gospel emphasis, evangelicals also developed escapist and over-realized millennial theories that fed a basic social passivity about the culture. This emphasis said, in effect, “Christ is coming soon so our only role in culture is to rescue as many souls as possible before he comes.” Many liberal Christians continued to engage the political process, even embracing a politics of personal destruction by the 1960s. But evangelicals, at least in my early years, saw politics as “dirty business” and not worth their time as serious Christ-centered Christians.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."