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In America, the religious left is gaining ground

10 December 2011

The 1980s saw the growth of the religious right in the USA, especially in Evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic circles. Now, it seems, the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way again.

The New Evangelicals –

These “new evangelicals” are quick to say (correctly) that all this is not new but consistent with tradition. Evangelical emphasis on individual moral responsibility made them, from the colonial era to World War I, politically anti-authoritarian and economically populist — anti-banker and anti-landlord. Before the Civil War, they created many of the associations that helped build the country and, in the North, were crucially important to the abolitionist movement. After the war, they fought for labor against robber-baron capitalism and supported William Jennings Bryan three times for president on a pro-worker, pro-farmer platform. Even the Fundamentals pamphlets, circulated between 1910 and 1915 as a conservative call to evangelicals, included a section on the benefits of socialism.

In South Africa, during the 1950s and 1960s, Evangelicals and Pentecostals tended to be apolitical, or so they said. They would quote Jesus as saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”, and say religion and politics don’t mix — thereby, as one American Evangelical writer put it, “siding in pious neutrality with the stronger.”[1]

At that stage, then, Evangelicals and Pentecostals formed a passive religious right, rather than an activist one.

The rise of the charismatic renewal movement in the non-Pentecostasl churches in the late 1960s and 1970s muddied the waters.

These were the denominations that had been most critical of the apartheid policy in South Africa — Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics and others. The two groups (or at least their leaders) had hitherto had very little to do with each other, but suddenly the charismatic renewal movement was bringing them together. At an ecumenical charismatic service in Durban’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in 1975, a Full Gospel church choir sang, and the preacher was Justus du Plessis of the Apostolic Faith Mission, a Pentecostal denomination. The encounter had a tendency to politicise the Pentecostals, and pietise the non-Pentecostals.

In the 1970s the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Bill Burnett, went about preaching revival to the social activists, and social activism to the revivalists. In some ways it was an uncomfortable message for both.

Many people tried to analyse the charismatic renewal in South Africa in sociological terms — white insecurity in the face of political uncertain was one of them. These rather facile evalusations overlooked the fact that the charismatic renewal was a worldwide phenomenon, and it followed roughly the same trajectory in many other countries, so it could not really be explained by local factors.

One of the things that facilitated its rapid spread, and perhaps its equally rapid decline, was a technological innovation of the time that is now obsolete — the cassette tape recorder. A charismatic Anglican parish I was involved with in the early 1980s (St Stephen’s, Lyttelton), recorded every service — not just the sermon, the whole thing. The tapes were duplicated after the service, and copies made and taken to sick people who hadn’t been able to come to church. There was also a tape library containing recordings of charismatic preachers and teachers from all over country and over the world. People would borrow these tape to listen in their cars while sitting in traffic jams or on long journeys. They would listen to them and study them in hundreds of small groups, both denominational and ecumenical, all over the country. The speakers included people like Colin Urquhart from Britain, Derek Prince and Bob Mumford from America and many others. And this happened in dozens of other local parishes affected by the charismatic renewal.

And thus the message of the Religious Right in America also spread all over the world. Those who listened to the cassette tapes and read the books (many of which were what a friend of mine once called “Spiritual Westerns”) were often quite undiscriminating about what they read and listened to. And this, I believe was one of the factors that led to the decline of the charismatic renewal in Southern Africa. A bunch of Neopentecostal denominations appeared, which in effect tried to distil the charismatic experience, divorced from the rest of the Christian faith. These never became as politically right-wing as some of their counterparts in America, but the result was the routinisation of charisma, and a generation grew up that confused worship with musical entertainment.

And in America, and elsewhere, some who have grown up with that somewhat truncated version of the Christian faith have now come to realise that there is something more. Some have called this the Emerging Church. It’s not just about a New Left vision of politics (somewhat different from the “old” New Left of the 1960s), but involves a rediscovery of many aspects of the Christian faith that were obscured and neglected by the one-sided emphasis of the Neopentecostals, and the vision of the Religious Right that grew up in the Reagan-Thatcher era.

I was alerted to the article I quoted above in the Progressive Orthdox Group on Facebook, and one of the people who responded to it noted:

Lazar Puhalo: Our monastery has been working with a number of the “Emerging Church” Evangelicals. The group associated with the Monastery has begun to teach the Orthodox concept of Redemption, as opposed to the Atonement doctrine[2], and has also been part of an Evangelical group that has been examining the early Church Fathers. It is good to encourage them, but one wonders how they will react when they come into contact with some of the sqalid pettiness afoot in the Orthodox Church today, along with some of our more reactionary clergy. We can learn from these Emergent Evangelicals in many ways, just as they can learn a more solid theology from Orthodoxy. (Vladika Lazar)

So perhaps there is an enounter that is similar in some ways between charismatics on the one hand, and Evangeliscals and Pentecostals on the other, that took place in the 1970s.

I hope it bears more lasting fruit.

Warning! Any comments anyone makes on this post may be used in the book I am writing with John de Gruchy on the rise and fall of the charismatic renewal in Southern Africa.


Notes and references

[1] Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway. Up to our steeples in politics.

[2] I think it might be more accurate to say that the “Atonement doctrine” is the penal substitution theory of the atonement, since the Orthodox concept of redemption is also an atonement doctrine, though this may just be a quibble about words.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 10 December 2011 10:41 am

    Galatians 3:28
    There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

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