Jay Larson Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race and American Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). [Reviewed by Jason T. Larson, Syracuse University]
From time to time it is good to step outside of one’s concentrated area of focus to remind oneself that great people exist who are doing excellent and relevant work in other areas. It is, rather, like re-visiting a genre of music that once was an all-consuming passion, but which has, over time, been supplanted by something else. Peter Goodwin Heltzel’s debut book Jesus and Justice is just such a book; prior to my concentration on ancient Christianity, I had visions of focusing on American Christianity, and American evangelicalism in particular. Heltzel’s book is both a pleasure to read and a serious genealogical ethnography of American evangelicalism that promises to radically alter our understanding of the uneasy marriage between evangelicalism and politics in the United States.
Heltzel, Assistant Professor of Theology at New York Theological Seminary, recognizes from the outset of his book that the element missing from other studies and reports of evangelicalism’s explosive involvement in American politics since the Jimmy Carter administration is primarily a theological element. In order to try “to understand politically active evangelicals in all their diversity … one must explore their theologies of Jesus Christ” (xvii). From this starting point, Heltzel delves into his history of how evangelicalism has since its modern origins in the nineteenth century sought to answer “Who is Jesus?” and model its ethos based on its answer to this question. Starting with evangelical advocacy for abolition in the antebellum United States, Heltzel follows evangelicalism’s tortured negotiation of American racism. Racism, he argues, is the fundamental issue around which not only nineteenth-century evangelicalism was constructed, but the twentieth century’s version of it as well. It was how evangelicalism answered the questions of slavery, civil rights, and race relations that provided the blueprint for subsequent hot-button issues of our own day: abortion, same-sex marriage, and environmentalism.
Heltzel makes a powerful move here, however. Recognizing that evangelicalism has typically been seen as a white middle-class movement, Heltzel demonstrates that this perception itself stems from evangelicalism’s own ambiguous position vis-à-vis the issue of race; in fact, this so-called “white evangelicalism” is far more influenced by the black evangelical tradition than has generally been recognized. And this may well be the real point of Heltzel’s book: there is not, and has never really been, an exclusively “white” evangelicalism at all; it has always already been conditioned by the radical, subversive understanding of Jesus inherent to African American Christianity, and especially black evangelicalism.
Heltzel sets up the second half of the book by describing the two paradigmatic figures for both black and white evangelicalism’s heritage. In the first instance, Martin Luther King Jr. is emblematic for understanding the mutual dependency between the black and white streams of the evangelical ethos that guide the way evangelicals think of social justice. King’s Jesus stems from the black tradition that views the “suffering of the human flesh of Jesus Christ with the suffering of the African American people in the history of the United States” (46). This, however, fuses with mainline liberal theology and white evangelical theology that emphasizes conversion and populism. Heltzel then juxtaposes King’s blended, hybrid black-white evangelicalism with that of Carl Henry, who, along with Billy Graham, is one of the two most prominent front-men for twentieth century evangelical ethics and popular theology. Heltzel displays great sensitivity in his handling of Henry’s “uneasy conscience” over the matter of institutional racism in the United States. For Henry, the kingdom of God and social justice starts with the individual believer, each one being made in God’s image; but this is precisely the source of the angst that Henry felt over racism, for it was fully apparent to him that individualism was precisely the reason for evangelicalism’s inability to give a full theological account of race.
Heltzel then turns his attention to “Evangelical Politics” in part two of his book. Here, he presents four of the major evangelical movements in contemporary America that have been serious players in American politics since the 1970s. Heltzel begins with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. Heltzel examines Focus’ Nazarene and Holiness heritage, which fuses with Henry’s individualism to advocate a very distinct pro-family politics that champions a very Victorian, white, and middle-class family unit that is vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion, environmental stewardship, and the “women’s movement.” Once again, Heltzel traces Focus’ particular emphases to its own failure to answer the challenge of racism, which provides the template for all of the “new civil rights movements” that Focus believes same-sex marriage, abortion, environmentalism, and women’s liberty represent. For Focus, and for those who are under its (very powerful) influence, the civil rights movement is over; racism is no longer an issue, and there is simply no good reason to be bringing either racism or civil rights back into the picture for these new, trendy attacks on the fundamental institution of the American family. Heltzel clearly disagrees with Focus on this, pointing out that Focus’ primary failure is in its rejection of the specifically black understanding of Jesus as the one who suffers and dies for the sins of the people. At the same time, however, Heltzel sees the stirrings of a number of younger evangelicals in Focus’ organization that are beginning to embrace the vision of King, a hopeful sign that may yet lead Focus out of its own militant, machismo Christianity into a more sensitive ethic of justice.
Heltzel’s treatment of three other movements (The National Association of Evangelicals, The Christian Community Development Association, and Sojourners) is similar to his discussion of Focus on the Family. It is no accident, moreover, that Heltzel orders the sequence of these movements in the way he does; each is progressively more sensitive to the inclusion of the black evangelical tradition than the previous movement (although the CCDA, as a black evangelical movement, is a reversal on this theme, drawing heavily from the white tradition to reinforce the specifically African American Christianity on which it is based). The reader is left with the impression that Heltzel is guiding us to a complete rethinking of what it means to be evangelical; for in each of these successive chapters, beginning (and ending) with the issue of race, Heltzel leads us through the numerous shifts that institutionalized movements like Focus, Sojourners, the NAE, and CCDA are experiencing as the demographics of those calling themselves “evangelical” change. Heltzel argues that we are now seeing an “evangelicalism in a shade of blue-green,” an evangelicalism that hears the blues of the African American tradition while it begins to grapple with the contemporary issues of same-sex marriage and the “greening of America.”
As Heltzel sees it, the days of stark divisions between white evangelicalism and black Protestantism are over, and it is time that each tradition recognize that they spring from the common ground of Jesus and learn that each has much to gain from a sensitive appreciation of the other. In Heltzel’s hands, twenty-first century evangelicalism, far from being a dualistic binary, is charged with the energy that pulsates between two extremes, a truly hybrid entity of a Bhabhan “Third Space” where the traditional evangelical culture as we know it is being deconstructed and reconstructed in order to bring a new movement the bears the best of the heritage of King and Henry. Heltzel’s call is a prophetic one, and it is the hope of this reviewer that there are ears to hear.Jesus and Justice