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When you think of the term “Religious Right,” does any particular name or face come to mind? For many, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy personified the Religious Right movement of the 1980s and 1990s, but both are now gone. Pat Robertson resurfaces every so often, only to disappear back into his hole after saying something that makes the press go apoplectic. It is difficult to come up with one name (much less two) that could be considered a driving force of evangelical activism on the right. While many conservatives are active and doing good and necessary things to influence the culture for Christ, the name recognition among this group is fairly limited.

One scholar, in a recent address to the Evangelical Leaders Forum, has made the claim that young evangelicals are more likely to name Rick Warren or Bono as a major influence in their own lives than a figure connected with the Religious Right. Michael Gerson told the crowd gathered at the Forum that “we are seeing a head-snapping generational change. The model of social engagement of the religious right is increasingly exhausted.” Gerson cites three reasons for the shift in focus: a recovery of scriptural emphasis, a revolt against the tone and style of the Religious Right, and the effects of short-term mission trips. [1]

Gerson’s use of the word “exhausted” is a good one for two reasons. 1) The individuals associated with the Religious Right or the Moral Majority are getting old. They are either dead or dying, and so is their influence. 2) The political and social activism of the Religious Right was an emotional and desperate attempt to try to reverse the trend of political and theological liberalism. The efforts of the Religious Right, however impressive and well-intentioned they may have been at the time, were physically and mentally draining. When Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson wrote the epitaph for the movement with their book, Blinded by Might, in 1999, many on the Right took the opportunity to find a park bench and sit down for a while. Most never got back up.

There is a sense in which Thomas and Dobson were correct in their caricature of the Religious Right movement as being a failure. Politically-motivated activism can only take you so far, as the left is quickly beginning to realize with President Obama drunkenly spinning the wheel of the U.S.S. Constitution into every socialistic sandbar he can find. Change has never been as easy as criticizing and fighting against those currently in power. Something must re-place what is currently in-place. Political liberals loudly condemned President Bush’s fiscal irresponsibility, only to turn the same checkbook over to Obama with a fresh supply of rubber checks. In reality, they had no plan; “change” was only a word that had a much nicer ring than “more of the same.” Big government looks the same regardless of who is sitting behind the desk. Political change can only do two things: spend and legislate. Thomas and Dobson came to realize this and their book is a reaction against the futility of relying on politics as the sole method for effecting change. Their premise is correct in this regard, but advocating the wholesale abandonment of the national political realm for neighborhood evangelism is not the answer either. We should, and must, do both.

To their credit, Rick Warren and Bono both understand this. We may not agree with either their politics or their theology, but we cannot take away from the fact that they are both doing what they preach. Warren and Bono both hold to a version of the social gospel, but it is their action that makes the youth sit up and take notice. I have already stated that many conservatives are also putting their theology into practice, but this never reaches the eyes and ears of the youth. Most conservative charity and mission work labors in obscurity, never receiving the media’s attention. Gerson rightly pointed out in his speech that a “combination of moral conservatism with social activism is the evangelical tradition.” The fact that most youth are now associating social activism with the morally liberal wing of evangelicalism only highlights the fact that conservatives need to be doing a better job of raising awareness of their activities.

In their recent history, American evangelicals have been known for their commitment to biblical authority and tenacious affirming of what “the Bible says.” In and of itself, this is commendable. At the same time they have not been particularly known for their contributions to theology and philosophy, ethics (i.e., moral philosophy), law, economics, statecraft, the social sciences or public policy—which is to say, areas that require considerable reflection on the interaction between Christian faith and pluralistic society. Happily, there are indications now, at the cusp of the third millennium, that this is changing. But evangelicals in the main will need to step back, learn to think historically with the whole of the church and begin training their own based on a vision that is long-term in nature… Educating for the future requires vision that extends to future generations. Theologically and ethically speaking, the present generation of American evangelicals is a generation that “knew not Joseph”; thus, we must begin to reason, reflect and educate at the level of “first principles.” [2]

Educating at the “first principle” level is certainly needed and, as Charles points out in the quotation above, is beginning to happen with increasing regularity. But education is only a starting point. We also need to be providing the example of what these “first principles” look like out there in the world. This is where the conservative wing of evangelicalism needs to get more proactive and visible. “According to Gerson, young Americans return from short-term mission trips with a changed worldview. Their exposure to poverty, HIV/AIDS, and economic injustice make them concerned about these issues and want to improve the problems.” [3] But these problems can be just as readily found in America as they can be in third-world countries. Short-term mission trips can be taken by traveling on a bus, as well as a plane. Lobbying congress and fighting injustice in Washington may seem to be a noble thing to do, but taking a group of kids from your church to a local Habitat for Humanity project can be just as effective, and probably more so, as a lesson in Christian compassion.

Evangelicals, with some notable exceptions, [are] prone to being theologically deficient. That is, they seemed to have an inherent bias against theology and Christian doctrine, as if the task of theology were the exclusive domain of the theologian, the seminarian or the technical expert. This theological deficiency inhibits our ability to work constructively over the long term; we are creatures of the moment, reacting to issues and dilemmas on the basis of stopgap measures rather than developing the implications of our worldview (which, truth be told, is hard work). A related tendency among evangelicals was (and remains) our inability to relate biblical theology to ethics, which would seem to suggest a rather tragic divorce between belief and practice, in the end revealing a faith-works dichotomy that is roundly condemned in the epistle of James. [4]

While Gerson is correct about his “head-snapping” moment, it is not as though the warning signs haven’t been present. Most conservative evangelicals will simply laugh this “head-snap” off as yet another example of theological liberals “working their way to heaven.” Waren and Bono are influential because the youth are looking for these kinds of practical examples. Conservatives have their counterparts as well; it’s just that they aren’t household names. This is a good thing; grassroots activism nearly always happens under the radar. And if the activism demanded by theological conservatism is being modeled at home and in the church, our kids wouldn’t need to seek out the Rick Warrens and Bonos of the world.


[1]  Michelle Vu, “Evangelical Movement at ‘Head-Snapping’ Moment, Says Scholar,” The Christian Post. Online here.**
[2]**  J. Daryl Charles, _The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church’s Moral Vision_ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 14.**
[3]**  Vu, “Evangelical Movement."**
[4]**  Charles, _Unformed Conscience_, 15-16.