When you want to mobilize for political battle, you shift strategy and rhetoric toward creating and sustaining neatly defined sides, with faithful soldiers lined up and ready for action. In the United States, political debates have long been a battle between Republicans and Democrats, but in recent dustups we’ve seen frustration when any representative crosses party lines for anything, even procedural votes.
The two-party system has benefited from political polarization, to the point that the “middle ground” has diminished in our day, and candidates for public office no longer feel the pressure to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. What matters most on Election Day is the ability to rev up the base of people most excited about voting, and that base is usually made up of people who know clearly which side they’re on.
I’m concerned that we are seeing a similar phenomenon in conservative evangelical circles. This isn’t new. Similar strategies show up in some of the contentious debates that surface from time to time. For several years within the Southern Baptist Convention, battle lines were drawn between Calvinism and Traditionalism, with statements written and conferences hosted. To the soldiers most committed to one side or the other, the surveys of Southern Baptist church leaders were perplexing, because the research revealed a spectrum of views—a variety of positions among pastors who did not fit neatly on one side or the other. Despite the heated rhetoric over soteriology in the SBC, there was always more of a spectrum than there were two “sides.”
Something similar is happening these days in debates over the gospel and issues related to justice (particularly race). Leading up to and after the 2016 election, certain fault lines within conservative evangelicalism became apparent, divisions that were always present under the surface but were exacerbated and exposed during one of the most contentious political seasons of our lifetime. We’ve seen the rise of new rhetoric (“woke,” “social justice warrior,” “cultural Marxism,” and so on) and the release of articles and statements intending to make clear distinctions between opposing sides. Some are concerned about the infiltration of the “social gospel” into evangelical circles through political advocacy on matters related to race. Others are concerned that we learn from the mistakes of our forefathers, who often failed to grapple with the full breadth of social concern that stems from gospel witness and were therefore complicit in the racial status quo of their day.
Unfortunately, in the midst of the increasingly heated debates, a fundamental fact often goes unnoticed: We are not dealing with neatly defined sides, but rather a spectrum—a variety of views on the best way forward in integrating gospel fidelity with pressing social concerns. Evangelicals have never been united on the way forward, even during the days when there appeared to be unity on the surface. But evangelicals have never been totally divided either, as if there were only two poles of thought.
Carl Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is still relevant today, because the conservative wing of evangelicalism has never quieted that conscience when it comes to social concern, and because unease has so often led to inaction in matters related to race (though not in other areas, such as abortion or religious liberty). At the same time, evangelicals are (rightly) wary of alliances and ideologies that can have destructive consequences. We’ve witnessed the cratering of mainline and “progressive” denominations that raced down the path of advocacy, sometimes adopting unbiblical ideologies and philosophies that were baptized in religious terminology.
These tension points are still with us, not least because there really is racial resentment and prejudice among some evangelicals today, and because there really is a kind of activism beholden to Marxist philosophy that would lead the church to disaster. Unfortunately, the rush to label anyone who disagrees on these matters as either “Marxist” or “racist” adds fog rather than clarity and, ironically, keeps us from dealing with the real challenges. Labels are easy and effective because they harden the lines around the sides; they are misleading, though, when most people are on a spectrum.
My point here is not to offer a middle or a third way on these debates, but to call brothers and sisters who share a common commitment to biblical authority to recognize that they may be closer on the spectrum than they realize. Those who see these debates as two distinct sides would do well to articulate the real dangers of their own side (quietism and social apathy in some circles, and ideological compromise and theological liberalism in others).
Likewise, the conversation would be more productive if brothers and sisters would be willing to call out problematic statements or positions from people they assume to be on their “side.” By letting things slide and go unchecked on one side of the spectrum because we assume “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” we open the door to an insidious white nationalism on the one side, or the downward spiral of identity politics and Marxist ideology on the other. We need careful judgment, wisdom, patience, and discernment if we are to “believe the best” of one another.
In the meantime, remember this: Worldliness is often manifested not merely in the positions we might take, but whenever we engage in debate the same way unbelievers do. If we fail to stand out in a world of polarization, if we fail to resist the temptation to easy and effective labels because it mobilizes a side, even if they misrepresent people on the spectrum, we may be worldlier than we realize. The way we talk about and interact with brothers and sisters in Christ still matters if we are to be truly transformed by the renewing of our mind.