Brian STEENSLAND and Philip GOFF, editors. The New Evangelical Social Engagement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. $90.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-19-932954-0. Reviewed by Paul MISNER, Marquette University emeritus, Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881
This reviewer, an outsider to American Evangelical history, found these essays a very good introduction to this branch of Christianity as a whole. There is no mistaking that “social engagement” is not particularly characteristic of its public image today. Nevertheless its tradition (if I may use a term more at home in Catholic usage) boasts important social activist elements. No, Evangelicals are not “all Catholics now,” as Mike Huckabee taunted the Obama administration in 2012 (see pp. 73-91, Omri Elisha’s thoughtful treatment of the recent reciprocal influences). In the various strands of the new (minoritarian) evangelical social movements, there are interesting and significant bonds with Catholic emphases.
Individual essays treat prominent and not-so-prominent movements, with their organizations and journals, such as campus ministry (InterVarsity), communitarianism (“The New Monasticism”), young evangelical women, human rights, “Green Evangelicals,” and global concerns (no longer just as missionary work for personal conversions but also development). Racial justice is often noted as an aspect of social justice (itself a relatively new concept in the evangelical realm), but the ethnographical research behind many of these studies has dealt with the recent generations of White American Evangelicals, while recognizing that the large and important Black evangelical churches have their own trends and experiences to be investigated.
The elephant in the evangelical room is certainly not ignored: the collusion of the largely evangelical “religious right” of the 1980s with electoral politics in thrall to the Republican Party. Not that evangelical social engagement was relegated entirely to the margins, but e.g. “Prolifers of the [evangelical] Left” (pp. 200-220) found themselves to a great extent lumped in with the religious right. But they persevered and took new initiatives. To cite a prominent example, Sojourners, founded in the 1970s (www.sojo.net), represents an independent standpoint and is more influential than ever today.
It is unquestionably rewarding to read the essays in sequence from beginning to end. However, for a first sampling and context, let me recommend the excellent Introduction (pp. 1-27) by the editors, judicious and well documented like the other essays. Then, before delving into the topical chapters, one may turn to the final three reflective chapters, written respectively by Joel Carpenter, R. Stephen Warner and Glen Harold Stassen. They offer concise summings-up, each from their own perspective: historical, sociological, social-ethical. In addition, they delineate the tasks and prospects that face the social conscience of American churches in the next years of the twenty-first century, especially for those with a base in American Evangelicalism.