13 June 2006

Charles Finney Where Is Your Christian Legacy?

Tony Campolo at the Huffington Post mentions Charles Finney, one of the co-founders of Oberlin College, my undergraduate alma mater, as an Evangelical Christian who was a leader in progressive social movements like abolition and women's sufferage (he could easily have added prohibition, the town of Oberlin was dry until just a few years ago, and the anti-Masonic movement, which resulting in the entire baseball and football team being expelled, which went hand it hand with them at the time).

Campolo also rightly notes that William Jennings Bryan did carry on that part of the Evangelical tradition a little longer. But, then, outside the African-American community, the trail of progressive Evagelical religion seems to grow cold.

Campolo notes the apparent indifference of the Evangelical Christianity today towards the plight of the poor, bringing up the old saw that "Evangelicals are people who believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth." And, the notion of a liberal Evangelical really does seem to have become an oxymoron these days.

Of course, back then people who felt like that, once the party was formed, were Republicans, as the Republican party from its formation and until well past the end of Reconstruction, used to be the liberal political party on social issues. Indeed, a number of county by county and state by state election result maps separated by a century or so are striking in the extent to which there was a true reversal of the party affiliations while political ideologies remained remarkably stable over more than a century in geographic areas as small as a county.

Oberlin College was no exception to this trend. The political inclinations of the folks at Charles Finney's Oberlin certainly stayed with the institution, but the Evangelical Christian movement did not.

When I was there the number of Evangelical Christians, while more numerous in the community than Republicans, was small. In an effort to give Christianity a second chance, maybe it was just the Lutherans who were mistaken, I spent my time there affiliated with Christ Episcopal Church, and the college student group there probably outnumbered all of the Evangelicals on campus, and other mainline Christian churches had similar modest sized quite followings, especially amongst the less politically inclined conservatory of music students who often were headed towards careers in sacred music. But, hell, even the Trotskyists probably outnumbered the Evangelical Christians.

The theological seminary left for Vanderbilt in the 1960s, and was converted into a dorm (it was called "Asia House" when I was in attendance), around the same time that Oberlin entered its "modern era" characterized by fewer curriculum requirements, a student run experimental college, co-ed dorms and later co-ed bathrooms in some of those dorms, and so on.

Did Finney's remarkably Christian centered progressivism simply secularize? Did it migrate out of the Evangelical movement in a religious realignment to parallel the political label changing? Or did it simply die out with its missions accomplished and no more on the immediate horizon? What happened?

Some traces of Finney's legacy comes up in Southern Democratic party politics.

Until the 1960s and the Republican Southern strategy, the Democratic party was the dominant party of white Southern Evangelicals. Evangelical Dixiecrats were Democrats with something of a populist cast. And yet, until then, Evangelical Dixiecrats were Democrats with something of a populist cast. Huey Long was no believer in civil liberties or civil rights or the rule of law for that matter, but they did embrace a vision of society that was generous to the less well to do. Huey Long's 1928 campaign "slogan of 'every man a king, but no one wears a crown'—[was] a phrase adopted from William Jennings Bryan."

Did hearts harden as Americans left rural America in droves during the Great Depression only to find impovershed cities? Long, for example, turned against FDR and started to oppose New Deal legislation and plotted to realign the political parties with a third party designed to split the left before he was assassinated.

Did it happen in the 1950s, when Eisenhower embraced in "God We Trust" on coins, "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and the like as a part of the Red Scare as a finger in the eye of the "godless communists" as World War II became the Cold War, and Christianity became an "us" versus "them" affair, instead of a domestic dialog?

The Republican "Southern Strategy" to win support in the 1960s from White Southern Dixiecrats, who were often also Evangelicals, by opposing the civil rights movement concluded the transition of the Republican party from the party of Lincoln to the party of abortion and tax cuts of the 1980s that eventually offered us conservative Christian George W. Bush as a Presidential candidate. Even George Wallace favored stronger social programs for the less well to do at the same time he was taunting hippies and standing up for segregation, and started out in his political career as a progressive. Does the transition has no deeper roots than this?

I don't know where or when it happened, but somewhere, the Evangelical Christian legacy of Charles Finney either died or was transformed and relabeled. I don't really know what happened to it, but, as I note above, there is certainly plenty of suggestive evidence on the issue.

Hat Tip to Colorado Comments.


RightDemocrat said...

I can remember when most evangelical Christians were Democrats. The evangelical vote played a major role in Jimmy Carter's 1976 victory. During that election year, I handed out many copies of a paperback book titled "The Miracle of Jimmy Carter" which focused on Carter's born-again Christian faith.

Aside from a few social issues, many evangelicals are more in line with Democratic views on public policy. With a more inclusive attitude toward differing views on social issues, I think Democrats can win many evangelical voters back to the party.

Anonymous said...

I love Charles Finney!
His stuff has impacted me in such a deep way, I don't think I even understand it. I have read most of his books and have been so encouraged by his personal walk with Jesus. He was something special.

I am a musician and CF has inspired many of my songs. I would be honored if you would check out my music on my site. All my music is free for download. Anyway, I just thought that I'd share.

"All my music is free for download."