Friday, February 13, 2009

Evangelicals and Politics in America

(I was invited to speak this week at a meeting of The All-Party Parliamentary Methodist Fellowship. This is a gathering of Methodist Christians in the Houses of Commons and Lords who meet monthly to discuss issues of faith and politics, and I was asked to give some historical and theological background to the election of Barack Obama. What follows is an edited version of my remarks.)

I’ve noticed that the topic for today is ‘Barack Obama: A New Vision for America?’ I’m going to take that title as sufficiently broad enough to speak on the history of evangelicals and evangelicalism in America, and in particular the evangelical engagement with the broader culture in the US. As a Christian who is also an American, and also a minister and an historian of evangelicalism, I make no pretense of neutrality on this topic. It matters to me very deeply—you can let me know if you think it has overly colored my analysis of events.

You’re going to hear me talk a lot about evangelicals today. One reason for that is that the history of political engagement among evangelicals is frankly more interesting than that of other Christian traditions. But to be fair, the real reason is that evangelicalism is what I know—less sometimes as a participant than as an observer, but I do reside theologically within the boundaries of evangelical Christianity.

Listen to this quote from the news last week: ‘I believe restoring religious faith to its rightful place, as the guide to our world and its future, is itself of the essence. The 21st Century will be poorer in spirit, meaner in ambition, less disciplined in conscience, if it is not under the guardianship of faith in God.’

That was no American politician shilling for evangelical votes. It was Tony Blair, who won the race to become the first foreign leader to visit Barack Obama in Washington. It struck me that one critical difference between British and American public life is that while Blair had to wait until he was out of office to speak openly about his faith, the US won’t elect a president unless he or she makes some claim to personal faith as a candidate.

The relationship between American Christianity and American politics is an enormous topic—one that would take far longer than any of us has today—but it is an important one in light of the recent US election. My goal today is to start with some background on the history of Christianity in America, and introduce some themes that relate to the election of Barack Obama. The basic point is this: Evangelicals as a voting bloc have broadened the range of issues that matter to them, and this diversification provided a part of the crossover that swayed the election Obama's way. The background to this shift will be the focus of my presentation.

Some quotes that point us in the right direction:

John Winthrop: (Led the group of Puritans who founded the Mass. Bay Colony in 1629) ‘For we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.’

Alexis De Tocqueville: (French historian and political philosopher) ‘The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren traditional faith which seems to vegetate in the soul rather than to live.’

America is a religious nation, and for much of the first 150 years the dominant religion was Christianity. It would be difficult to overstate the influence of Christian thought and biblical teaching on American culture—in some ways that influence continues today and is visible in people who long ago abandoned any personal links with Christianity. But it’s more accurate to say that America was and is a religiously free nation. From the beginning, several of the colonies were founded with the expressed purpose of providing religious freedom to their citizens. The Quakers of Pennsylvania protected Roman Catholics escaping from England, and Rhode Island was known for separating church and state completely. Most Jewish Americans and more than a few Muslim Americans will freely admit that America is the freest and safest place for them to live and thrive.

Still, that overwhelmingly Christian influence has led to a sort of shared myth of America as an explicitly Christian nation, especially among evangelicals. The idea of ‘American exceptionalism’, or the belief that America has some unique and divinely inspired historical destiny, sets most non-Americans’ teeth on edge. For many American evangelicals, however, it remains a deeply held belief.

Christianity in America, while certainly present at the founding of the nation, reached its greatest level of influence in the 19th and not the 18th century. Church attendance in the colonial and revolutionary periods was far lower than it would be after the Second Great Awakening and beyond. In fact, the spread of Christianity in America follows a pattern that directly challenges the standard evangelical narrative.

Most American evangelicals believe that the nation started with a strong and influential Christian consensus, which has eroded over the last two centuries through moral and theological decay. It is crucial for the understanding of contemporary events—including the election of Barack Obama—to accept that the opposite is actually true. In 1776 only 17% of Americans attended church—not exactly a strong and influential consensus. By 1850, in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, that number had doubled to 34%. By the turn of the 20th century, 50% of Americans attended church, and by 1982 that number had risen to 62%. (Source: Finke and Starke, The Churching of America: Rutgers, 1992.)

The only conclusion supported by the actual data is this: While Christianity was certainly present at the founding of the United States, it only achieved its cultural dominance in the late-19th and 20th centuries. That matters, partly because it’s always better to have an accurate picture than an inaccurate one, but mostly because it helps us understand the events in the early 20th century that led to the rise (and eventual fall) of the Religious Right as a political force.

First, though, a word about the role of evangelicalism in 19th-century America. It will surprise many to know that evangelicals were at the forefront of the major social movements of the day: women’s rights, rescue missions and other relief work among the poor, and most importantly, the abolition movement. In the 19th century there was no division between the meeting of physical and spiritual needs—in fact, to it would have seemed strange to an evangelical in the 19th century to separate the two. But that all started to change near the turn of the 20th century. Historians generally attribute the marginalization of evangelicals and the origins of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies to a handful of factors.

Certainly immigration was a factor. Huge numbers of Roman Catholics and Jews were coming from Europe, diluting the American self-image of a largely Protestant Christian nation.

Science and the rise of evolutionary theory also played a major role. This is the age of the modern university, built on a foundation of neutral inquiry and secular thought. The educational institutions of America, even those with Christian origins, began to marginalize Christian faith and practice not only in the curriculum, but also in student life.

The rise of modern Biblical criticism was the most important factor. The use of historical and literary methodologies to examine the Bible and challenge traditional faith was the last straw. It was during this period, in the early decades of the 20th century, that two businessmen provided financial backing for the publication of a series of pamphlets defending traditional Christian doctrines. These were called The Fundamentals, which gave us the term fundamentalist. The articles were written by some of the most prominent British and American scholars of the day, and more importantly, were distributed free of charge to ministers and laypersons alike.

As strange as it may sound, Fundamentalism was not originally a militant movement. But after the Scopes Monkey Trials in 1925, where conservative Christianity was savaged in the press, fundamentalists began to separate from denominations, academic institutions and other areas of public life. They built a thriving subculture of parallel institutions including churches, Bible colleges and missionary agencies. At their best they cooperated on projects and campaigns, while at their worst they separated not only from the secular culture, but also from each other.

The division between fundamentalist and modernist Protestant traditions in America can be compared to a divorce. These were, after all, Christian people of mostly Anglo-European origins, who had simply found living together impossible. In the divorce, each group got something in the settlement.

The left wing of the church, which was suspicious of enthusiastic preaching and revivalism, took custody of social action—work with the poor, international relief work, and progressive political action. This more liberal wing of the church was much more open to revisions of inherited doctrines, and embraced a broader definition of the Christian faith.

The conservative or evangelical wing of the church took primary responsibility for evangelistic efforts—for soul-winning and other spiritual work. This group also emphasized the defense of traditional doctrines and practices, using a fairly narrow conception of Christian truth.

It’s this division, which has only recently started to weaken, that defined Christian political life in America for almost a century. For our topic today it’s important to note that the fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant side of this split spent an enormous amount of time and energy defining who was and who was not a true Christian. George Marsden, a prominent historian of American Christianity, has argued that without a Pope or other voice of final authority, conservative American Protestantism tended to employ boundary issues to define who was in and who was out. Originally these were traditional issues of doctrine: Deity of Christ, Trinity, Authority of Scripture, Atonement, and Eschatology.

These boundaries were defended with such vigor and militancy at times, that even groups who agreed on virtually everything could separate from each other. Separatism became, for the conservative wing of Protestant America, the functional equivalent of excommunication. The best example of that is the case of Billy Graham in 1957. Graham, who was (and for most would continue to be) the star of modern revivalism, had led enormous evangelistic rallies in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities. He set his sights on New York, as most evangelists did, and built a coalition of local church leaders to help him organize his Manhattan Crusade. Trouble arose, though, when word got out that there would be leaders from mainline Protestant churches joining Graham on the platform. The form of separatism practiced by conservative evangelicals at that time prohibited any cooperation between individuals or groups that didn’t share the narrowest understanding of Christian doctrine. Graham was criticized for including non-evangelical leaders in his crusade, and a major segment of the evangelical movement separated from him before the event—most of that group of evangelicals has remained functionally separate from Graham and his ministry for the half-century since the New York campaign.

Think about that for a moment. An influential group of conservative evangelicals split from Graham because he was too ‘liberal’, and they managed to stay separated as Graham led hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to faith in Jesus Christ. Our contemporary understanding of the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals, whether we know it or not, is rooted in the 1957 conflict over Billy Graham.

The important thing to recognize is that for good or ill, evangelicalism came to be seen as obsessed with determining who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Some of this was utterly fruitless and destructive, as with the divisions over the sequence of the End Times or the fight over Billy Graham. Some of it was helpful discernment of theological differences—the sort that matter for evangelism and church ministry. But even in that area evangelicals could go a bit over the top. Walter Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults was published in 1965, and defined the conservative evangelical outlook on other religions for a generation, especially in regards to Mormonism. Martin, who had misrepresented his educational credentials for decades, earned millions on revision after revision of his guide to non-Christian religions. To be fair, he was often more moderate than his readers, as in the case of his positive assessment of the Seventh-Day Adventists, but he created an atmosphere that, ironically, made it more difficult to conduct meaningful evangelism among Mormons.

Martin’s book, I would argue, represented just one of many overreactions to the marginalization of conservative Christianity that had begun in the early part of the 20th century. We should remember, though, that this marginalization did not slow the steady growth of church attendance in America, but it did erode the self-perception among evangelicals of their cultural power in wider society.

A key shift happened with the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 70s. This organization represented a dramatic shift in the way evangelicals would engage American culture, moving from agreement or separation over doctrinal matters to cooperation on political action on a narrow range of social issues. The most striking thing about this group was that it assembled, just as Walter Martin’s book was exploding in popularity, a coalition of evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, traditional Jews, and Mormons.

The key here is that these groups, who previously would have had nothing to do with each, suddenly banded together over abortion, homosexuality, school prayer, and the fate of the modern state of Israel. This shift away from doctrinal issues and onto social/political engagement has defined conservative Christian political participation for more than a quarter century. The rise of the Christian Right, which encompassed fundamentalism and much (though not all) of evangelicalism, has been a dominant political force in the Republican party. That was true until the run up to the election of Barack Obama.

Why the change? Before addressing that question, it’s important to note that the breakdown of the conservative evangelical political coalition does not represent a breakdown of unity on those issues. Christianity Today, an evangelical publication, is conducting a survey of Christian leaders to determine their level of concern over moral issues in light of the new administration.

There are two explanations that will be important to historians of this period someday.

First, we have seen a happy erosion of the boundary-setting mentality of past generations. More thoughtful leaders are reflecting on, and in some cases repenting of, the tendency to pronounce final judgments on other Christians and even non-Christian people. That role, in any consistent theology, is God’s alone. As an American Christian I think this change allows for a more gracious and complete expression of a Christian worldview in political life.

More importantly, there was a broadening of the list of issues that influenced the voting patterns of evangelicals. There is more to define the Christian encounter with the broader culture than simply being against abortion or homosexual practice. Deeper Christian reflection on issues of peace, poverty, social justice and the environment emerged as having a strong influence over the voting decisions of many young evangelicals. That came as an unwelcome shock to leaders of the Christian Right, but it was welcomed by many as a sign of maturity and depth among evangelicals as they developed new ways to engage the culture.

But again, why the change?

Partly it represents a new way of understanding the idea of truth, or maybe a better word to use there is ‘certainty’. There is a greater level of sensitivity toward other faiths or political views among evangelicals than existed before.

Certainly the public identification of President Bush to the evangelical movement, alongside the perception of injustice and failure in the Iraq War, pushed many younger evangelicals out of the Republican camp.

Some of it simply comes down to good solid leadership. There have been influential evangelical thinkers who have been communicating this broadening of evangelicalism over the last 10 years or so, and that influence seems to have caught on in a big way. On the left, Jim Wallis has been a champion of social justice among evangelicals for decades, but his book God’s Politics forced many people to see their engagement to the culture in new ways. On the more conservative side, Rick Warren has joined the evangelistic emphases of the conservative camp with a vigorous commitment to social action as well as anyone since the 19th century. Institutions such as Fuller Theological Seminary, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Evangelicals for Social Action have developed an intellectually and theologically sound set of arguments for the broadening of political engagement among evangelical Christians.

This transformation hasn’t been easy—some early leaders lost their jobs and ministries in the process—but in the end it has made room for a more vibrant and effective witness for evangelicals in the broader political world, and it had a direct impact on the election of Barack Obama as the American president.

The next step will be to see if these progressive evangelicals—the ones who broke ranks with the Right and helped to elect Obama—if they will be welcomed into the expanded progressive movement, or if they will be alienated and return to the entrenched, boundary-making politics of the past.


  1. JOhn,

    Well-written and very clear: I would guess you were enthusiastically received. (Be sure to thank Julie for writing it for you.)

  2. Thanks for laying out that history so clearly. Informative and well-said. Helped me fit some pieces together of that evangelical vs. fundamentalist puzzle.


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