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Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Emerging/Emergent Church and American Politics
One of the interesting things about being a twenty-something evangelical in the new millenium has been to watch the awakening of sorts my generation is having in regard to pressing issues of the day: war, genocide, poverty, and the environment, to name a few. One other aspect of our coming of age is our cultural interaction and awareness. We are more aware of the culture's media of expression than any generation before us. We don't just affirm a multicultural United States, we live in one--whether we or our parents like it or not. Those raised in Christian homes were raised by neo-evangelicals most likely, so they aren't just curious or wary about pop culture, they love it. What is more, they view that cultural interaction as a necessary ingredient in a fruitful missional way of life. These young people and their attitudes are the Emergent Church. First, let me say that these are simply my admittedly limited observations of, and experiences with it and its people. I'm personally inclined and trained to think politically about these and other movements. I don't aim to be ungracious, but A) political scientists are in the business of generalizations, and B) it's my opinion. If I cause you offense, that is regrettable, but perhaps unavoidable.
It looks to me that the Emergent Church serves twin needs, as observed by my generation. First, it speaks in a missional language that is culture-saturated, which accepts postmodernism not as a thing to be destroyed, but as the new worldview paradigm that we all must labor under.
Second, it sees the need to expand the scope of Christian social concern beyond that of personal (and sexual) morality. What I want people to really understand is that the battlefield of American politics is actually creating the Emergent Church. I cannot justly accuse every member or leader of a lack of biblical fidelity or inappropriate political involvement (quite the opposite, usually) but I'll state it bluntly and then explain: the Emerging/Emergent Church is a progressive (left-leaning) political movement with Christian evangelical overtones.
Within theology, the renewed emphasis on biblical theology is the driving force behind the rejection of the older evangelical allegiance to the Republican Party. Political parties themselves only exist to win elections. It's not their job to give adherents a comprehensive worldview. In fact, the only motivation party leaders have to tell a "story" in terms of the nation comes because A) it works on people, and 2) is useful for that current cycle in defeating the opponent. This is why I always laugh when someone says, with deep conviction, "Neither party represents the 'Christian way' or matches my views." Why would they? That would be contrary to their purpose. Noone should be surprised that, as 'storied hermeneutics' gains an even stronger grasp over the evangelical mind, political confusion will increase. Our political system, for the sake of governance, is built on dichotomous allegiances and personal compromise (the two-party system).
Older generations were deeply influenced by Pietistic theological traditions; their (over)emphasis on personal morality stuck with them as they involved themselves in politics. The problem is, their politics determined their theological emphases as well. The Republican resurgence (and I am one, so I speak delicately here) in the 1970s and 80s was a reaction against the utopian certainties of the New Deal, which held sway well into the 1970s. The 1960s was chaotic; it was fertile ground for a political realignment. Pietism in its worst forms is dualistic: this world is bad, but the next will be great. And if people must be involved, surely the part we can control would be our own souls and bodies. And the Republican Party would naturally accept any doubters of the progressive order, no matter the reason. For the evangelical, it was a suspicion of that order, not its rejection. But that was good enough. Anyway, every political movement is a focused overreaction, and the story of politics is the ebb and flow of these overreactions over time.
This generation is rejecting the political story told by the GOP over the last 30 years. They may not even think of themselves as political, and they may resent the idea that they are playing out a fairly predictable role in American political life, but that's reality. In crass, unfair political terms, the whole movement portends a Democratic realignment, because we have witnessed the end of an era.
The problem is, Christian people who expand their worldview in reaction to a political story they are rejecting without knowing it is political risk becoming pawns in the next struggle, because they don't understand politics or economics. They're default progressives because they have accepted tacitly the idea that they need a unifying story that is political to match the spiritual one that is the gospel. Non-Republican political actors are all too ready to reject the once dominant political story and to embrace those rejecting it, for their own reasons.
If evangelicals want to be politically progressive, they should say so. The worst aspect of the whole movement is the ignorance among them of the progressive movement's true goals, and then accidentally (or deceptively) embracing those as a matter of the gospel. When I read Donald Miller or some snippet of McClaren, Rob Bell, even Mark Driscoll, I hear, "I'm a progressive, and I'm proud of it!" And if that's what they intend, good for them. But if it's out of ignorance, they simply sound ill-informed, as if it's more important to criticize one ideology over another. And do they realize that simply being passionate about an issue does not guarantee that the means of combatting the problem is either the most effective, or the most conducive to liberty?
It's irrelevant to observe that one party or the other fails to contain all the imperatives of the gospel. Ministers would do well to respect the political process, not simply being "non-partisan" or "independent," but either well-informed as to the actual issues, or silent. Simply because one ideology or group appears to be correcting whatever truncations of the gospel have occurred in the past (by ostensibly talking about certain issues more, e.g. poverty) doesn't mean that we should embrace those political imperatives as a matter of faith. Let's respect the intelligence of Christian people, and that of political actors. Nor will it do to point out the old guard's politically-driven exegesis if one denies your own. Indeed, it is the emergent tendency to deny traditional doctrines for the sake of spurning the old guard's politics, all while denying their motivation is political.
I suppose the thing to watch now is whether the traditionalist, liturgical movement among other evangelicals has a corresponding political effect, or it simply balances out emergent theology.

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