Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: A Review

With 2012 being a presidential election year, politics is constantly in the news. One perennial question is what role evangelical Christians will play. But who are evangelicals, and how did they come to occupy the role they do in American politics?

Kenneth J. Collins presents his readers with a historical survey that answers that question, focusing on evangelicals’ pursuit of political power since the late 19th century. Collins is a professor of historical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, an evangelical school from the Wesleyan tradition. The book comes in six chapters, which mostly follow chronological order. In the first chapter, Collins looks at the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century. He discusses factors that led to the decline of Protestant Christianity’s public voice starting in the late 19th century, including Darwinism and higher criticism of the Bible. In the second chapter, Collins narrates the growth of fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism from the ’30s through the ’50s. In the third, he describes the turbulent ’60s and the influence of the Religious Right from the ’70s to the ’90s. The fourth chapter brings a break from Collins’ chronological march, in which he looks at two of evangelicalism’s responses to Darwinism: theistic evolution and intelligent design. In the fifth chapter, he looks at the rise of the evangelical left, focusing particularly on the careers of Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren and Jimmy Carter. He also includes a discussion of the Manhattan Declaration, an attempt at nonpartisanship that was received tepidly by the evangelical left. In the first pages of chapter six, called “Beyond Ideology,” Collins brings an end to his historical survey with the rise of Barack Obama. He then argues that evangelicals’ desire for power has prompted them to restrict their public voice to an exclusively political idiom, leading to disastrous results. His positive proposal is for evangelicals not to abandon politics altogether, but to craft an evangelical political philosophy that is informed by Scripture and natural law, and is wary of being co-opted by the non-Christian ideologies of the right or the left.

This book is a well-done survey of evangelicalism’s involvement in American politics for the reader who wants to place current political debates in their historical context. I have read other accounts of American evangelical political involvement, and this one stands out for two reasons: first, Collins includes discussions of the Wesleyan/Holiness/Pentecostal stream of evangelicalism, which has sometimes been left out or given short shrift. Second, he depicts the rise of the evangelical left, which is not narrated in older historical accounts of American evangelicalism. Readers who are already familiar with the history of American evangelicalism will not find a lot that is new in the first 100 pages or so, but the latter part of the book makes it worth reading even if you have some familiarity with that history. I especially recommend it for those who have interest in, but little or no knowledge of, the history of evangelical political involvement in the United States.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy.

Publisher: Intervarsity Press
Reading Length: 260 pages
Rating: 4 stars

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