In 1957, young Harvard-bred historian Timothy Smith, of the Church of the Nazarene, knocked a lot of us budding ordinary historians – secular, “mainstream,” or however described – off our library stools with his book Revivalism and Social Reform.
We had been trained to look for the roots of American social Christianity in the liberal Protestant Social Gospel (post-1907) and progressive Catholicism (post-1919). Smith back-dated such movements by a half-century, to revivals around 1857, which, he argued, added concern for morality and ethics in the social order to the private-and-personal moral agenda of older evangelicalism.
Having fought against dueling, profanity, Sunday mail, et cetera, these revivalists found new ways to address slavery, poverty, and inequality. Imperfect, they did chart a course.
Smith died in 1997, but historians in his train often remind us of how things were back when evangelicals were evangelical and not Evangelical, as if a quasi-political party. These years their ancient cause – dated from the eighth century before Christ, among the Hebrew prophets – is revived on many fronts.
This week I will cite one of them, Jim Wallis’s Sojourners, which some of us have been reading for two-score years. Jim and a colleague dropped by the other for day a chat, in the week when he’d made a repeat visit to TV's 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart', and we made up a bit for lost time.
The Martys welcome all kinds of company, even someone like Wallis, whom Christian anti-Communist Crusaders (there are still such) call “pro-Marxist, pro-Communist, even pro-Socialist,” the third of which is a term applied in the US to anyone to the left of Genghis Khan these days.
Wallis was on a book tour for his new Rediscovering Values on Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street: A Moral Compass for the New Economy. He gave me a theme for the week, as did a chapter from the book in the February Sojourners. His choice of words like “Values” and “Morals” instead of “Biblical” or “Christian” may enlarge the zone of discourse, but he has not left his evangelicalism behind.
Wallis has always been puzzled by the way some Evangelicals specialize in quoting the six biblical verses which refer or may refer to homosexuality, but consider it out of bounds for believers to notice the six hundred or six thousand that reference Mammon, money, riches-and-poverty.
Like the ancient prophets, he names names: not Edom and Moab, Assyria and Babylon, but Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Citigroup, which, bailed out with the public’s money, had rewarded themselves at the time he wrote with $8.66 billion (that’s eight thousand six hundred and sixty million) in bonuses, while, Wallis adds, “the average bank teller at Bank of America makes only $10.75 an hour – just over $22,000 a year.”
He notices that the financial services industry spent $223 million lobbying Congress to fight any regulations or restrictions. (He wrote that before the recent Supreme Court decision that will allow the banking industry and others to advertise and lobby and influence Congress in amounts that will make that $223 million look like peanuts.) You get the idea. Next time I may be back to appraising our moral framework from a crypto-capitalist viewpoint... something compensatory lest my column gets typecast as – gasp! – not “prophetic” but – sh-h-h-h! – populist.
Watch Jon Stewart and Jim Wallis: http://www.hulu.com/watch/122028/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-jim-wallis .
Sojourners is online at www.sojo.net .
(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com .
With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center  at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.