Lisa Sharon Harper is the author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat and Executive Director of NY Faith and Justice, an organization that began in June 2006 when four strangers from New York met at the Sojourners / Call to Renewal Pentecost Conference in Washington D.C. They left that meeting with a common vision inspired by one dangerous thought: “What if the body of Christ came together in all its diversity? And what if that diverse body spoke with one voice about one thing—poverty?” Within months, NY Faith and Justice was on its way to becoming a diverse movement of churches, organizations, and individuals, all united in their mission of addressing poverty through community dialogue, the reduction of violence, and environmental justice. In Part I of this interview, Harper describes the important work that NY Faith and Justice is doing in New York City. Here, in Part II of the interview, Harper discusses her evangelical faith and the relationship between evangelicalism and politics, the economy, and social justice activism.
The Other Journal (TOJ): My day job, if you will, is working in microfinance. It’s all international in scope, and that’s actually one of the things I’ve been banging my head against the wall about, because microfinance is the idea that we bring in financial capital and give people loans so that they can get businesses started and generated. But the roots of it are fairly strongly capitalistic in the sense that capital is going to give us the solutions. And I have seen over and over again that while microfinancing may give a temporary boost, it can actually create long-term disadvantage when it’s not completely integrated with this more holistic framework that you’ve described.
Lisa Sharon Harper (LSH): Many people don’t believe that—people who really believe they know something about finance in our area. As you can imagine, lots of people fall into this category since we’re near Wall Street. Interestingly, I especially find this full dependence on the capitalist free-market system among evangelicals. I just had an interesting conversation about how ironic it is—this is going on a bit of a tangent, but it will come back—that health care reform is fundamentally about the right to life, and yet, ironically, a lot of people who proclaim to be pro-life have actually been trumpeting choice over the last month. I said that thinking leads to a health system where care is reserved for choice people. A friend of mine, Gregory Walgenbach, a graduate from Fuller Seminary, responded, “You know, I really believe that evangelicals, in particular, have been co-opted by a capitalist ideology, and our church has become a marketplace. And so we do everything by capitalists’ ideals. And if you go back to the root of what evangelicals believe financially with regard to poverty, with regard to everything, their ideology supports capitalism at its core. It’s really about capitalism; it’s not really about Jesus.”
I think that’s very, very true. And in fact, when you go back through our history, looking at our racial history, especially in the twentieth century, we evangelicals have been at the crux of some of the worst sides of American history. And usually the mantra that we’ve screamed on those bad sides of history is: “We want to protect our way of life.” That’s the mantra: protect our way of life.
And the thing that is just so striking is that evangelicals have also been on the better side of history, but not in the twentieth century. The twentieth century was almost all straight-up evil with regard to our stances on social justice issues, but in the nineteenth century, we were the ones who actually spearheaded the abolitionist movement. We were the ones who laid the foundations for the women’s suffrage movement. We were the ones who actually started the labor union movement. You would never know this to look at twentieth-century and even many twenty-first–century evangelicals. But I believe we’re changing now, we’re going back to our roots. I choose to believe that, and I know many, many people of the younger generation who are actually going back to those roots, finding those roots again.
But in the twentieth-century, we were deeply co-opted by a capitalist mantra. I believe that it’s not really even just about capitalism—I think that in a lot of ways, whoever benefits from a financial system is going to be tempted to use that system to keep others down and to keep themselves in place. And unfortunately, in the twentieth century, it was white evangelicals who really found themselves at that nexus, who were truly benefiting—especially in the South, but not only in the South, also in the North—and the mantra of “we want to maintain our way of life” at that point was about segregation, and it’s interesting to see how that fight to keep segregation in place made its way into late twentieth-century politics with the case against Bob Jones University in the 1970s—
TOJ: What was that?
LSH: Basically, the case of United States of America v. Bob Jones University was about the university’s tax status as a religious, charitable, or educational institution being revoked because of racist policies. And it was evangelicals who rallied around them—that was the first time since the Monkey Trials of the 1920s that evangelicals began to rally around a political issue. After the Monkey Trials, they kind of went underground. It was this issue—the right to segregate—that brought us back up in ire. It was not Roe v. Wade that sent ripples through the evangelical world; it was Bob Jones University. And after Bob Jones University lost its case, those evangelical leaders looked around and said, “I think we have something here—I think we have a movement. What could we go after and make this turn into something?” It was then that they decided to focus on Roe v. Wade. But that wasn’t until the mid to late 1980s. And that’s when they framed the Republican Party as the party of evangelicals, because the Republican Party was also against Roe v. Wade. They basically were co-opted into the Republican Party, and now for a couple of generations most evangelicals have believed that Republican equals evangelical, or even that evangelical equals Republican. But if you go way, way back, at the genesis of this movement was racism. It started from racist roots and tension. And it didn’t even just start with Bob Jones—Bob Jones was just the public manifestation of an underground movement that was simmering way before that with really the birth of the evangelical conservative movement.
There’s a really provocative book that came out last year, The Big Rich. Its author, Bryan Burrough, explained in an NPR interview that if you trace the money, you’ll find that the conservative movement was first funded by a few uneducated Texas oilmen. They were fundamentalist, not evangelical, and they were absolutely racist. They used their money to fund segregationist policies that were happening throughout Texas but then also across the country.1 I wish that I knew more, but when I heard that, it really made sense, especially when you look at how that manifested itself in the public square. In the early to mid-1940s the conservative “Dixiecrats” (Southern Democrats) were fighting efforts by the NAACP to outlaw lynching. Remember, at the time the Democrats had been the conservative party since the Civil War, and the Southern Democrats, in particular, were the heart of the party. Likewise, they were the heart of the early twentieth-century American conservative movement. Their goal was to conserve the white man’s way of life. Most of them claimed to be Christians. So, even then, there was an unspoken belief that white evangelicalism in the public square equaled conservative activism. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the Dixiecrats switched parties, disgusted by Lyndon B. Johnson’s progressive Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and “Great Society” legislation. So, the Dixiecrats switched parties en masse, and the Republicans instantly became the party of the American conservative movement. And most of them claimed to be Christians. On the wrong side of history, once again, in the twentieth century, and the leading mantra was “We have to protect our way of life.”
This was the conservative movement that found its way into the public square starting in the ‘40s. It morphed into the explicitly evangelical movement that backed Bob Jones University in the 1970s. And it became the movement that formally embraced a political identity enmeshed with evangelical Christian identity.
TOJ: The other thing I’d really like to hear more about is your new book Evangelical Does not Equal Republican or Democrat,2 particularly because it sounds to me like you’re referring to yourself as one—
LSH: Oh, yes, absolutely.
TOJ: So here’s the question: what is an evangelical and why are you one?
LSH: Well, I wrote the book in late 2007 and early 2008, and it was published in October 2008. I still very much refer to myself an evangelical because at the heart that’s who I am. And I refuse to give ground, quite honestly, to people who have distorted what it actually means to be evangelical. When I say I’m evangelical, what I refer to is David Bebbington’s idea of an evangelical.3 He talks about the four quadrants of evangelicalism, which were created in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not the twentieth century. That’s really when we as evangelicals had our genesis, there in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. And what Bebbington says is there are these four quadrants of evangelical thought or practice, and activism is one of them. The evangelical faith is an activist faith, that is, if we really believe, then our faith must be lived out. It’s not just a set of principles that we believe; it’s actually that our faith needs to be manifested in our lives. It’s also a faith that believes deeply in the cross. The cross has transformative power. It’s not just a symbol. It’s actual, real power. What Jesus did on the cross and the resurrection, we believe that it actually brings us from a state of death into a state of life. We believe in Scripture. We actually do believe the Word—sola scriptura. Although I believe that right now, there’s a transformation happening in evangelicals where it’s not necessarily solo scriptura, but Scripture is still primary. That is, in terms of building evidence for theology, if it’s not Scripture, it’s probably not worth looking at. Evidence doesn’t really hold a whole lot of weight if you can’t back it up in Scripture. And what’s the fourth one? I’m missing it.
TOJ: I think it’s conversion.
LSH: Oh, yes! Exactly. And the way I like to put that as an African American is that we “jump the broom” with Jesus. We really believe you have to cross the line. There’s a point of conversion. And some people kind of slide across the line, so they can’t necessarily tell you when it was, but there’s a definite change, a shift that happened in their lives. And other people can name the date and time like me: 1983, right around 9:00 or 9:30 at night, at a Sunday evening camp church meeting. And I know that was the time I was in tears, and I went home and lost ten pounds from that morning. I kid you not. I actually literally got on the scale—I was on a diet at the time—got on the scale in the morning, weighed myself just because I was on that diet, and then got on the scale that night because I felt lighter. And I was! I was ten pounds lighter! And I was still ten pounds lighter the next morning and the morning after that. And I really believe that it was a spiritual weight that was on my shoulders that was registering on the scale. And I remember asking myself, “I wonder if this is going to stick. I wonder if I’m still going to be a Christian ten years from now.” That was 1983, and I’m still a Christian. It was real. All four quadrants are true of me. So, I am an evangelical.
But, see, that activism, the way it actually works itself out in my life now is closer to the evangelicals of the nineteenth century who really believed in the theology of the kingdom of God, and for me I’ve actually really begun to embrace and understand more of the theology of shalom. I think it’s that nexus of the theology of shalom and the theology of the kingdom of God that is actually producing a new generation of evangelicals right now. Because throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, we began to hear a lot more about the kingdom of God, and it was the kingdom of God that shaped the theology of evangelicals in the nineteenth century—that’s what drove them to lead the way in the abolitionist movement, to start the labor unions, and to lay down the foundations for the women’s suffrage movements. Because in the kingdom of God, there is justice. But we lost that in the twentieth century. With the embarrassment of the Monkey Trials, our activism kind of turned inward. The evangelicals of the nineteenth century saw no division between personal holiness and social holiness—both demonstrated activated faith, whereas the evangelicals of the twentieth century turned their backs on social holiness in favor of only individual moral transformation. We adopted the faith of fundamentalists who said that the only thing that matters is our personal relationship with Jesus. We lost all contact with the public square. And with that, our theology lost all contact with the public square, and we adopted the four spiritual laws. You know what I mean? And our “good news” really became irrelevant to the public square. The public became irrelevant to us and we became irrelevant to the public.
What I believe, actually, is that in the middle between the liberal church and the evangelical and fundamentalist church of the twentieth century was the historic black church, which held onto both. They held on to that personal sense of salvation and personal morality, but they also adopted a theology of justice. And not just adopted—they clung to it, because they couldn’t help but cling. They were living under the weight of oppressive systems. There was no if, ands, or buts about whether systems exist and about how Jesus feels about them. Because they knew Jesus cared about them, so of course he cares about these systems that are crushing them. You know what I mean? So as I say in my book, I think that what happened in the mid-twentieth century is that there were people like Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr. in that movement who really trumpeted the part of the gospel evangelicals lost in the twentieth century. And John M. Perkins really stands as the hinge person: he was the hinge for the evangelical movement in the twentieth century because his evangelical faith was born in a white fundamentalist setting, but then he went back down South and got a taste of what injustice really feels like. He had to question a lot of what he was told and rediscover Jesus for a new context. And then, he developed the three Rs and CCDA, and actually introduced the evangelical church to the summer project model. We have summer projects all over the place now and they have nothing to do with justice. But John M. Perkins is the one who brought the summer project model into the evangelical church. He was part of the civil rights movement. Young people went down to Mississippi; they knocked on doors and got people to register to vote. They called it the Freedom Summer Project of 1964, and Perkins housed some of those young people in his home and church. He learned the summer project model from the civil rights movement, and he developed it. Then Campus Crusade for Christ took it on, and Intervarsity took it on, and they changed it into a missions thing. So I believe that through his 3 Rs, through CCDA, and through that summer project model, which gave birth to urban projects all over the country throughout the late twentieth century, Perkins created on-ramps for the evangelical world to begin to understand another worldview and to begin to see the gospel through the eyes of the oppressed.
TOJ: That’s fantastic.
LSH: And personally, I became a Christian in a white fundamentalist setting, but it was on a Here’s Life Inner City summer project with Campus Crusade for Christ that I first got introduced to John Perkins and reintroduced to the gospel through new eyes in college. So I guess that’s a very, very long answer to your original question, but that’s been my journey.
TOJ: This is very, very, very interesting, Lisa. I actually wish I had known you earlier.
LSH: Well, now you do! And really I’m looking forward to reading more of the articles on The Other Journal and reading more of the interviews you’ve done. I’m really looking forward to building a relationship with The Other Journal. I think it’s a really needed publication.
Click here to read part one of our interview with Lisa Sharon Harper.
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1. Bryan Burrough, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2009).
2. Lisa Sharon Harper, Evangelical Does not Equal Republican or Democrat (New York, NY: The New Press, 2008).
3. David William Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730’s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 2-19.
Books by Lisa Sharon Harper and Mark Russell