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Is the NAE Becoming More Liberal?

Yes, claims The Weekly Standard, a self-identified politically conservative news website.

In this article, site contributor Mark Tooley argues that the National Association of Evangelicals has in recently years become “more liberal” by taking certain stances on issues like the environment, U.S. enhanced interrogation techniques, federal budget policy and immigration. He views these stances as ones that “distance [the NAE] from the old religious right.” And he sees its recent policy on nuclear weapons as further evidence of this liberalization. (The Search for Piety and Obedience wrote about the NAE’s recent resolution on nuclear weapons here.)

Here’s a taste of the piece:

Over the Summer an initial NAE nuclear discussion group included Tyler Wigg-Stevenson of the Two Futures Project, a group aimed at persuading evangelicals to back complete nuclear disarmament. A former protégé to the late Democratic Senator Alan Cranston, Wigg-Stevenson helped present the draft nuclear statement to the NAE board in October, though he himself is not a board member. During the Summer discussion, NAE President Leith Anderson, a Minnesota megachurch pastor whose flock includes former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, reportedly insisted NAE would not explicitly advocate complete nuclear disarmament. But the new NAE stance almost certainly will be widely interpreted in that direction.

The new nuclear stance also comes in the wake of the NAE’s having joined liberal religious activist Jim Wallis’s “Circle of Protection” to protest limits on social welfare and entitlement spending. An NAE representative joined Wallis and others in a visit with President Obama during the July debt ceiling crisis that seemingly aligned NAE against Congressional Republicans. Although widely criticized outside the NAE, the “Circle of Protection” apparently was not debated at last month’s NAE board meeting, whose sessions were closed.

Read the whole piece here.

Tooley may be right in asserting that the NAE is becoming “more liberal.” (I would prefer to use language like “progressive,” but that might be splitting hairs.) In some ways, evangelicalism as a whole is diversifying on the issues noted above, with some segments of the broader movement taking a “conservative” approach and others taking “liberal” positions. So the NAE is not unique in this way.

It should also be noted that self-proclaimed evangelicals like Ron Sider have been arguing against nuclear proliferation for decades. So this kind of opposition to the military-industrial complex is not unique within the American evangelical world.

Though he may (and I use the term “may” lightly) be right to point out the NAE’s “liberalization,” Tooley does, however, make some historically incorrect statements in his article — ones that bear a great deal on his present claims.

After the jump: We’ll look at two of Tooley’s historically inaccurate assertions about the NAE, and show how his lack of historical perspective weakens his present argument about NAE’s liberalization.

Jon R. Stone's "On the Boundaries of American Evangelicalism," one of several scholarly studies that situates the National Association of Evangelicals as an alternative to both the liberal National Council of Churches and the fundamentalist American Council.

First, Tooley suggests that the NAE “was founded in the 1940’s to counter the liberal and then influential National Council of Churches.” This is only partially true. As scholars like Joel Carpenter and Jon R. Stone have thoroughly demonstrated, the NAE also stood as an explicit alternative to the fundamentalist American Council of Christian Churches. When the neo-evangelicals who started the NAE postured themselves in this way, it was a decisive move, and one that angered many American Council supporters/founders, like the influential Carl McIntire. So in this sense, the NAE has always been viewed by some as a “liberal” institution, insofar as it departed from fundamentalist visions of conservatism.

Furthermore, Tooley’s suggestion that the NAE was “historically a conservative bulwark” needs further refining. If by “conservative” Tooley means theologically conservative, he may have a point. NAE members — whether denominations, institutions, or individuals — were required to sign a very broad doctrinal statement that affirmed several key points of orthodox Christian doctrine. In this way, members maintained theological orthodoxy, although a great deal of flexibility was given members in terms of denominational distinctives.

This flexibility often opened up the NAE — even in the 1950s — to claims of “liberalization,” as some member denominations voiced biblically based opposition to some of the claims of the Republican Party. Such was the case in 1955, when Brethren in Christ leader C.N. Hostetter, Jr., delivered to the NAE assembly a defense of Christian nonviolence that directly challenged claims made earlier in the day to the same body by political conservatives General William K. Harrison and Harold Ockenga. These latter two speakers had voiced support for military action against communism — the same kind of military action that was at the time openly advocated by elements within the Republican Party. By challenging these speakers, Hostetter was challenging the go-to party of the NAE — a challenge that opened up Hostetter (as well as the NAE officials who allowed him to speak) to accusations of “liberalism.” “How could such a ‘liberal’ be part of the NAE?” some wondered.

Hostetter again challenged such accusations by stating, “The inclination of evangelicals, and particularly of fundamentalists, is to take for granted that the Bible approves participation in war and [to] classify all opposition to it as identified with the pacifism espoused by liberals. The evangelical fellowship should be better informed.”

Given this bit of background, Tooley’s generalized historicization of the NAE as a “bulwark of conservatism” becomes problematic. Its status as a conservative group was challenged almost from its outset.

Those seeking additional information about the National Association of Evangelicals would do well to consult the following books:

  • Carpenter, Joel A. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A Google Books preview version is available.
  • Stone, Jon R. On the Boundaries of American Evangelicalism: The Postwar Evangelical Coalition. New York: St. Martin’s Press. A Google Books preview version is available.
  • Murch, James DeForest. Cooperation without Compromise: A History of the National Association of Evangelicals. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956.

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