President of Fuller Seminary Gives Annual Prophetic Vision of the Church Lecture
Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
The Boisi Center’s Annual Lecture on “The Prophetic Vision of the American Church” featured a reception and lecture by Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary on April10, 2003 in Gasson 100. This lecture, now in its second year, invites a prominent national religious leader to offer a timely and prophetic message to Boston College students and the larger community, addressing the insights that a focused religious perspective offers to the current challenges facing American society. Dr. Mouw, philosopher and president of one of the most important evangelical seminaries in the country has long argued for a more engaged political presence for evangelical Americans in his writings and public appearances, which include a regular column for Belief.net.
Beginning with an explanation of the basic features of Evangelicalism for his audience, Mouw explained that by some estimates there are 50 million Evangelicals in this country as defined by the following characteristics: 1) they place a strong emphasis on personal conversion and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; 2) they believe in the Bible as the supreme guide of God’s will; 3) they place a strong emphasis on the cross and what it represents, and; 4) they are ‘activists’ in the sense that their faith calls them to act on their beliefs.
After the Scopes trial in 1925, Mouw argued, the role of Evangelicals in the public square declined for the next five decades, focusing more on conversion and cultivation within the evangelical sub-culture rather than engagement with the secular world. Yet in the 1970’s and 80’s the increased social mobility of Evangelicals and their rising social influence lead to an important shift in the political stance of some evangelical leaders resulting in the emergence of the so-called” Moral Majority” and a rise in political influence. Mouw identifies this as the two modes of political evangelism, the first is represented by a stance of cultural withdrawal, and the other is represented by cultural imperialism. Mouw argues that the current mode of cultural domination highlights challenges that Evangelicals need to face more directly. The contemporary challenge Evangelicals face today, he believes, is to develop a more nuanced theological and philosophical understanding of the common good, similar to the work done by Catholic theologians such as David Hollenbach. At the same time, he also argued that Evangelicals need to develop a greater spirituality of empathy, drawing parallels between empathy and art appreciation, both of which benefit from cultivation and sensitivity.
Mouw believes that an evangelical theology of the common good is likely to look different from the ideas produced by the Roman Catholics or the Mainline Protestants. The history of Evangelicals as a marginalized people in the United States, their skepticism of official documents, and their trust in local, rather than national, organizations are characteristics that he believes will continue to shape evangelical perspectives. However, he also believes that their long tradition of mercy and compassion in their work with the poor through such institutions as rescue missions provides them with a starting point for conversations with other faith traditions, particularly Catholicism, that would prove mutually beneficial.