The Cold War Roots of Liberation Theology
How history helps Christians debate the meaning of the gospel
Last month a prominent Protestant theologian suggested that “the world’s evangelical Christians should remind ourselves that Christian nationalism can’t—and won’t—save the world.” Strikingly, the author wasn’t a mainline liberal or a progressive ex-vangelical; it was Russell Moore, the Baptist editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. Indeed, Moore argued that Christian nationalism, though most often associated with the political right, had more in common with left-leaning forms of Christian political engagement:
Despite their self-perceived opposition to the social gospel of old, Christian nationalists embrace the exact same view of the gospel. For the social-gospel-oriented left wing, Christianity exists to build a social order in step with the upward progress of humanity. For the Christian nationalist right wing, Christianity exists to build a social order in step with national or ethnic identity. The gospel is a means for a forward-looking utopianism in the one case and a backward-looking nostalgia in the other. Christian nationalism is a liberation theology for white people.
And that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
While he agreed with Moore’s larger condemnation of Christian nationalism, historian-pastor Malcolm Foley took issue with Moore likening it to “a liberation theology for white people,” and the implication that liberation theology can not truly be “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Foley responded that “liberation theology is political in precisely the way that the Gospel of Christ is and that as such, Black and Latin American liberation theologies are actually liberation theology for white people too. The good news of Christ’s solidarity with the oppressed is good news for all…except the oppressor.”
As it happens, this renewed discussion of liberation theology came just before I taught that subject — not in a theology course, but in my survey of Cold War history.
It’s one of my favorite illustrations of how we can integrate faith and learning at Bethel. Because we approach the Cold War as a global story, turning to the history of Latin America gives us a chance not just to see the ideological conflict from a different perspective, but to ask a more fundamental question: what is the gospel of Jesus Christ?
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