The Last Temptation

The Last Temptation by Michael Gerson, The Atlantic, May 2018    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/04/the-last-temptation/554066/

How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory

One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics—really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history—is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.

Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.

Trump supporters tend to dismiss moral scruples about his behavior as squeamishness over the president’s “style.” But the problem is the distinctly non-Christian substance of his values. Trump’s unapologetic materialism—his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth—is a negation of Christian teaching. His tribalism and hatred for “the other” stand in direct opposition to Jesus’s radical ethic of neighbor love. Trump’s strength-worship and contempt for “losers” smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ. Blessed are the proud. Blessed are the ruthless. Blessed are the shameless. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after fame.

According to Jerry Falwell Jr., evangelicals have “found their dream president,” which says something about the current quality of evangelical dreams.

And yet, a credible case can be made that evangelical votes were a decisive factor in Trump’s improbable victory. Trump himself certainly acts as if he believes they were. Many individuals, causes, and groups that Trump pledged to champion have been swiftly sidelined or sacrificed during Trump’s brief presidency. The administration’s outreach to white evangelicals, however, has been utterly consistent.

Trump-allied religious leaders have found an open door at the White House—what Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, calls “unprecedented access.” In return, they have rallied behind the administration in its times of need. “Clearly, this Russian story is nonsense,” explains the mega-church pastor Paula White-Cain, who is not generally known as a legal or cybersecurity expert. Pastor David Jeremiah has compared Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to Joseph and Mary: “It’s just like God to use a young Jewish couple to help Christians.” According to Jerry Falwell Jr., evangelicals have “found their dream president,” which says something about

Loyalty to Trump has involved progressively more difficult, self-abasing demands. And there appears to be no limit to what some evangelical leaders will endure. Figures such as Falwell and Franklin Graham followed Trump’s lead in supporting Judge Roy Moore in the December Senate election in Alabama. These are religious leaders who have spent their entire adult lives bemoaning cultural and moral decay. Yet they publicly backed a candidate who was repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct, including with a 14-year-old girl.the current quality of evangelical dreams.

In January, following reports that Trump had referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries,” Pastor Robert Jeffress came quickly to his defense. “Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him,” Jeffress wrote, “President Trump is right on target in his sentiment.” After reports emerged that Trump’s lawyer paid hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels to cover up their alleged sexual encounter, Graham vouched for Trump’s “concern for Christian values.” Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, argued that Trump should be given a “mulligan” for his past infidelity. One can only imagine the explosion of outrage if President Barack Obama had been credibly accused of similar offenses.

The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.

As the prominent evangelical pastor Tim Keller—who is not a Trump loyalist—recently wrote in The New Yorker, “ ‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ ” So it is little wonder that last year the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, an 87-year-old ministry, dropped the “E word” from its name, becoming the Princeton Christian Fellowship: Too many students had identified the term with conservative political ideology. Indeed, a number of serious evangelicals are distancing themselves from the word for similar reasons.

I find this desire understandable but not compelling. Some words, like strategic castles, are worth defending, and evangelical is among them. While the term is notoriously difficult to define, it certainly encompasses a “born-again” religious experience, a commitment to the authority of the Bible, and an emphasis on the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.

I was raised in an evangelical home, went to an evangelical church and high school, and began following Christ as a teen. After attending Georgetown University for a year, I transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois—sometimes called “the Harvard of evangelical Protestantism”—where I studied theology. I worked at an evangelical nonprofit, Prison Fellowship, before becoming a staffer for Senator Dan Coats of Indiana (a fellow Wheaton alum). On Capitol Hill, I found many evangelical partners in trying to define a “compassionate conservatism.” And as a policy adviser and the chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush, I saw how evangelical leaders such as Rick and Kay Warren could be principled, tireless advocates in the global fight against aids.

Those experiences make me hesitant to abandon the word evangelical. They also make seeing the defilement of that word all the more painful. The corruption of a political party is regrettable. The corruption of a religious tradition by politics is tragic, shaming those who participate in it.

How did something so important and admirable become so disgraced? For many people, including myself, this question involves both intellectual analysis and personal angst. The answer extends back some 150 years, and involves cultural and political shifts that long pre-date Donald Trump. It is the story of how an influential and culturally confident religious movement became a marginalized and anxious minority seeking political protection under the wing of a man such as Trump, the least traditionally Christian figure—in temperament, behavior, and evident belief—to assume the presidency in living memory.

Understanding that evolution requires understanding the values that once animated American evangelicalism. It is a movement that was damaged in the fall from a great height.

My alma mater, Wheaton College, was founded by abolitionist evangelicals in 1860 under the leadership of Jonathan Blanchard, an emblematic figure in mid-19th-century Northern evangelicalism. Blanchard was part of a generation of radical malcontents produced by the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that had touched millions of American lives in the first half of the 19th century. He was a Presbyterian minister, a founder of several radical newspapers, and an antislavery agitator.

In the years before the Civil War, a connection between moralism and a concern for social justice was generally assumed among Northern evangelicals. They variously militated for temperance, humane treatment of the mentally disabled, and prison reform. But mainly they militated for the end of slavery. 
Indeed, Wheaton welcomed both African American and female students, and served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. In a history of the 39th Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry, the infantryman Ezra Cook recalled that “runaway slaves were perfectly safe in the College building, even when no attempt was made to conceal their presence.”

Blanchard had explained his beliefs in an 1839 commencement address given at Oberlin College, titled “A Perfect State of Society.” He preached that “every true minister of Christ is a universal reformer, whose business it is, so far as possible, to reform all the evils which press on human concerns.” Elsewhere he argued that “slave-holding is not a solitary, but a social sin.” He added: “I rest my opposition to slavery upon the one-bloodism of the New Testament. All men are equal, because they are of one equal blood.”

During this period, evangelicalism was largely identical to mainstream Protestantism. Evangelicals varied widely in their denominational beliefs, but they uniformly agreed about the need for a personal decision to accept God’s grace through faith in Christ. The evangelist Charles G. Finney, who was the president of Oberlin College from 1851 to 1866, described his conversion experience thusly: “I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love.”

Early evangelicals were an optimistic lot who thought that human effort could help hasten the arrival of the Second Coming.

In politics, evangelicals tended to identify New England, and then the whole country, with biblical Israel. Many a sermon described America as a place set apart for divine purposes. “Some nation,” the evangelical minister Lyman Beecher said, “itself free, was needed, to blow the trumpet and hold up the light.” (Beecher’s daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe was among the founders of this magazine.) The burden of this calling was a collective responsibility to remain virtuous, in matters from ending slavery to ending Sabbath-breaking.

This was not advocacy for theocracy, and evangelical leaders were not blind to the risks of too close a relationship with worldly power. “The injudicious association of religion with politics, in the time of Cromwell,” Beecher argued, “brought upon evangelical doctrine and piety, in England, an odium which has not ceased to this day.” Yet few evangelicals would have denied that God’s covenantal relationship with America required a higher standard of private and public morality, lest that divine blessing be forfeited.

Perhaps most important, prior to the Civil War, evangelicals were by and large postmillennialists—that is, they believed that the final millennium of human history would be a time of peace for the world and of expansion for the Christian Church, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. As such, they were an optimistic lot who thought that human effort could help hasten the arrival of this promised era—a belief that encouraged both social activism and global missionary activity. “Evangelicals generally regarded almost any sort of progress as evidence of the advance of the kingdom,” the historian George Marsden observes in Fundamentalism and American Culture.

In the mid-19th century, evangelicalism was the predominant religious tradition in Americaa faith assured of its social position, confident in its divine calling, welcoming of progress, and hopeful about the future. Fifty years later, it was losing intellectual and social ground on every front. Twenty-five years beyond that, it had become a national joke.

The horrors of the Civil War took a severe toll on the social optimism at the heart of postmillennialism. It was harder to believe in the existence of a religious golden age that included Antietam. At the same time, industrialization and urbanization loosened traditional social bonds and created an impression of moral chaos. The mass immigration of Catholics and Jews changed the face and spiritual self-conception of the country. (In 1850, Catholics made up about 5 percent of the population. By 1906, they represented 17 percent.) Evangelicals struggled to envision a diverse, and some believed degenerate, America as the chosen, godly republic of their imagination.

But it was a series of momentous intellectual developments that most effectively drove a wedge between evangelicalism and elite culture. Higher criticism of the Bible—a scholarly movement out of Germany that picked apart the human sources and development of ancient texts—called into question the roots, accuracy, and historicity of the book that constituted the ultimate source of evangelical authority. At the same time, the theory of evolution advanced a new account of human origin. Advocates of evolution, as well as those who denied it most vigorously, took the theory as an alternative to religious accounts—and in many cases to Christian belief itself.

Religious progressives sought common ground between the Christian faith and the new science and higher criticism. Many combined their faith with the Social Gospel—a postmillennialism drained of the miraculous, with social reform taking the place of the Second Coming.

Religious conservatives, by contrast, rebelled against this strategy of accommodation in a series of firings and heresy trials designed to maintain control of seminaries. (Woodrow Wilson’s uncle James lost his job at Columbia Theological Seminary for accepting evolution as compatible with the Bible.) But these tactics generally backfired, and seminary after seminary, college after college, fell under the influence of modern scientific and cultural assumptions. To contest progressive ideas, the religiously orthodox published a series of books called The Fundamentals. Hence the term fundamentalism, conceived in a spirit of desperate reaction.

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

This general pessimism about the direction of society was reflected in a shift away from postmillennialism and toward premillennialism. In this view, the current age is tending not toward progress, but rather toward decadence and chaos under the influence of Satan. A new and better age will not be inaugurated until the Second Coming of Christ, who is the only one capable of cleaning up the mess. No amount of human effort can hasten that day, or ultimately save a doomed world. For this reason, social activism was deemed irrelevant to the most essential task: the work of preparing oneself, and helping others prepare, for final judgment.

The banishment of fundamentalism from the cultural mainstream culminated dramatically in a Tennessee courthouse in 1925. William Jennings Bryan, the most prominent Christian politician of his time, was set against Clarence Darrow and the theory of evolution at the Scopes “monkey trial,” in which a Tennessee educator was tried for teaching the theory in high school. Bryan won the case but not the country. The journalist and critic H. L. Mencken provided the account accepted by history, dismissing Bryan as “a tin pot pope in the Coca-Cola belt and a brother to the forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards.” Fundamentalists became comic figures, subject to world-class condescension.

It has largely slipped the mind of history that Bryan was a peace activist as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson and that his politics foreshadowed the New Deal. And Mencken was eventually revealed as a racist, an anti-Semite, and a eugenics advocate. In the fundamentalist–modernist controversy, there was only one winner. “In the course of roughly thirty-five years,” the sociologist James Davison Hunter observes in American Evangelicalism, “Protestantism had moved from a position of cultural dominance to a position of cognitive marginality and political impotence.” Activism and optimism were replaced by the festering resentment of status lost.

The fundamentalists were not passive in their exile. They created a web of institutions—radio stations, religious schools, outreach ministries—that eventually constituted a healthy subculture. The country, meanwhile, was becoming less secular and more welcoming of religious influence. (In 1920, church membership in the United States was 43 percent. By 1960, it was 63 percent.) A number of leaders, including the theologian Carl Henry and the evangelist Billy Graham (the father of Franklin Graham), bridled at fundamentalist irrelevance. Henry’s book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was influential in urging greater cultural and intellectual engagement. This reemergence found its fullest expression in Graham, who left the fundamentalist ghetto, hobnobbed with presidents, and presented to the public a more appealing version of evangelicalism—a term that was deliberately employed as a contrast to the older, narrower fundamentalism.

Fox News and conservative talk radio are vastly greater influences on evangelicals’ political identity than formal statements by religious denominations.

Not everyone was impressed. When Graham planned mass evangelistic meetings in New York City in 1957, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr editorialized against his “petty moralizing.” But Niebuhr’s attack on Graham provoked significant backlash, even in liberal theological circles. During a 16-week “crusade” that played to packed houses, Graham was joined one night at Madison Square Garden by none other than Martin Luther King Jr.

Over time, evangelicalism got a revenge of sorts in its historical rivalry with liberal Christianity. Adherents of the latter gradually found better things to do with their Sundays than attend progressive services. In 1972, nearly 28 percent of the population belonged to mainline-Protestant churches. That figure is now well below 15 percent. Over those four decades, however, evangelicals held steady at roughly 25 percent of the public (though this share has recently declined). As its old theological rival faded—or, more accurately, collapsed—evangelical endurance felt a lot like momentum.

With the return of this greater institutional self-confidence, evangelicals might have expected to play a larger role in determining cultural norms and standards. But their hopes ran smack into the sexual revolution, along with other rapid social changes. The Moral Majority appeared at about the same time that the actual majority was more and more comfortable with divorce and couples living together out of wedlock. Evangelicals experienced the power of growing numbers and healthy subcultural institutions even as elite institutions—from universities to courts to Hollywood—were decisively rejecting traditional ideals.

As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated.

The overall political disposition of evangelical politics has remained decidedly conservative, and also decidedly reactive. After shamefully sitting out (or even opposing) the civil-rights movement, white evangelicals became activated on a limited range of issues. They defended Christian schools against regulation during Jimmy Carter’s administration. They fought against Supreme Court decisions that put tight restrictions on school prayer and removed many state limits on abortion. The sociologist Nathan Glazer describes such efforts as a “defensive offensive”—a kind of morally indignant pushback against a modern world that, in evangelicals’ view, had grown hostile and oppressive.

This attitude was happily exploited by the modern GOP. Evangelicals who were alienated by the pro-choice secularism of Democratic presidential nominees were effectively courted to join the Reagan coalition. “I know that you can’t endorse me,” Reagan told an evangelical conference in 1980, “but I only brought that up because I want you to know that I endorse you.” In contrast, during his presidential run four years later, Walter Mondale warned of “radical preachers,” and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, denounced the “extremists who control the Republican Party.” By attacking evangelicals, the Democratic Party left them with a relatively easy partisan choice.

Billy Graham (right) left the fundamentalist ghetto, hobnobbed with presidents, and presented to the public a more appealing version of evangelicalism. (Bettmann / Getty)

The leaders who had emerged within evangelicalism varied significantly in tone and approach. Billy Graham was the uncritical priest to the powerful. (His inclination to please was memorialized on one of the Nixon tapes, in comments enabling the president’s anti-Semitism.) James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, was the prickly prophet, constantly threatening to bolt from the Republican coalition unless social-conservative purity was maintained. Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson (the latter of whom ran for president himself in 1988) tried to be political kingmakers. And, following his dramatic conversion, Chuck Colson, of Watergate infamy, founded Prison Fellowship in an attempt to revive some of the old abolitionist spirit as an advocate of prison reform. Yet much of this variety was blurred in the public mind, with religious right used as a catchall epithet.

Where did this history leave evangelicals’ political involvement?

For a start, modern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action. Over the same century from Blanchard to Falwell, Catholics developed a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection. Catholic social thought includes a commitment to solidarity, whereby justice in a society is measured by the treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members. And it incorporates the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that human needs are best met by small and local institutions (though higher-order institutions have a moral responsibility to intervene when local ones fail).

In practice, this acts as an “if, then” requirement for Catholics, splendidly complicating their politics: If you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, then you have to oppose the dehumanization of migrants. If you criticize the devaluation of life by euthanasia, then you must criticize the devaluation of life by racism. If you want to be regarded as pro-family, then you have to support access to health care. And vice versa. The doctrinal whole requires a broad, consistent view of justice, which—when it is faithfully applied—cuts across the categories and clichés of American politics. Of course, American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard.

So where do evangelicals get their theory of social engagement? It is cheating to say (as most evangelicals probably would) “the Bible.” The Christian Bible, after all, can be a vexing document: At various points, it offers approving accounts of genocide and recommends the stoning of insubordinate children. Some interpretive theory must elevate the Golden Rule above Iron Age ethics and apply that higher ideal to the tragic compromises of public life. Lacking an equivalent to Catholic social thought, many evangelicals seem to find their theory merely by following the contours of the political movement that is currently defending, and exploiting, them. The voter guides of religious conservatives have often been suspiciously similar to the political priorities of movement conservatism. Fox News and talk radio are vastly greater influences on evangelicals’ political identity than formal statements by religious denominations or from the National Association of Evangelicals. In this Christian political movement, Christian theology is emphatically not the primary motivating factor.

The evangelical political agenda, moreover, has been narrowed by its supremely reactive nature. Rather than choosing their own agendas, evangelicals have been pulled into a series of social and political debates started by others. Why the asinine issue of spiritually barren prayer in public schools? Because of Justice Hugo Black’s 1962 opinion rendering it unconstitutional. Why such an effort-wasting emphasis on a constitutional amendment to end abortion, which will never pass? Because in 1973 Justice Harry Blackmun located the right to abortion in the constitutional penumbra. Why the current emphasis on religious liberty? Because the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage has raised fears of coercion.

It is not that secularization, abortion, and religious liberty are trivial issues; they are extremely important. But the timing and emphasis of evangelical responses have contributed to a broad sense that evangelical political engagement is negative, censorious, and oppositional. This funneled focus has also created the damaging impression that Christians are obsessed with sex. Much of the secular public hears from Christians only on issues of sexuality—from contraceptive mandates to gay rights to transgender bathroom usage. And while religious people do believe that sexual ethics are important, the nature of contemporary religious engagement creates a misimpression about just how important they are relative to other crucial issues.

The upside potential of evangelical social engagement was illustrated by an important, but largely overlooked, initiative that I witnessed while working at the White House. The President’s Emergency Plan for aids Relief (pepfar)—the largest initiative by a nation in history to fight a single disease—emerged in part from a sense of moral obligation informed by George W. Bush’s evangelical faith. In explaining and defending the program, Bush made constant reference to Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much is required.” pepfar also owes its existence to a strange-bedfellows political alliance of liberal global-health advocates and evangelical leaders, who had particular standing and sway with Republican members of Congress. Rather than being a response to secular aggression, this form of evangelical social engagement was the reaction to a massive humanitarian need and displayed a this-worldly emphasis on social justice that helped save millions of lives.

This achievement is now given little attention by secular liberals or religious conservatives. In the Trump era, evangelical leaders have seldom brought this type of issue to the policy front burner—though some have tried with criminal-justice reform and the fight against modern slavery. Individual Christians and evangelical ministries fight preventable disease, resettle refugees, treat addiction, run homeless shelters, and care for foster children. But such concerns find limited collective political expression.

Part of the reason such matters are not higher on the evangelical agenda is surely the relative ethnic and racial insularity of many white evangelicals. Plenty of African Americans hold evangelical theological views, of course, along with a growing number of Latinos. Yet evangelical churches, like other churches and houses of worship, tend to be segregated on Sunday. Nearly all denominations with large numbers of evangelicals are less racially diverse than the country overall.

Compare this with the Catholic Church, which is more than one-third Hispanic. This has naturally stretched the priorities of Catholicism to include the needs and rights of recent immigrants. In many evangelical communities, those needs remain distant and theoretical (though successful evangelical churches in urban areas are now experiencing the same diversity and broadening of social concern). Or consider the contrasting voting behaviors of white and African American evangelicals in last year’s Senate race in Alabama. According to exit polls, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Roy Moore, while 95 percent of black evangelicals supported his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones. The two groups inhabit two entirely different political worlds.

Evangelicals also have a consistent problem with their public voice, which can be off-puttingly apocalyptic. “We are on the verge of losing” America, proclaims the evangelical writer and radio host Eric Metaxas, “as we could have lost it in the Civil War.” Franklin Graham declares, a little too vividly, that the country “has taken a nosedive off of the moral diving board into the cesspool of humanity.” Such hyperbole may be only a rhetorical strategy, employing the apocalypse for emphasis. But the attribution of depravity and decline to America also reflects a consistent and (so far) disappointed belief that the Second Coming may be just around history’s corner.

The difficulty with this approach to public life—other than its insanely pessimistic depiction of our flawed but wonderful country—is that it trivializes and undercuts the entire political enterprise. Politics in a democracy is essentially anti-apocalyptic, premised on the idea that an active citizenry is capable of improving the nation. But if we’re already mere minutes from the midnight hour, then what is the point? The normal avenues of political reform are useless. No amount of negotiation or compromise is going to matter much compared with the Second Coming.

Moreover, in making their case on cultural decay and decline, evangelicals have, in some highly visible cases, chosen the wrong nightmares. Most notable, they made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goesnot suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.

This was foolish and unnecessary. There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection; both are consistent with belief in a purposeful universe, and with serious interpretation of biblical texts. Evangelicals have placed an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.

Evangelicals remain the most loyal element of the Trump coalition. They are broadly eager to act as his shield and sword. They are his army of enablers.

What if Bryan and others of his generation had chosen to object to eugenics rather than evolution, to social Darwinism rather than Darwinism? The textbook at issue in the Scopes case, after all, was titled A Civic Biology, and it urged sterilization for the mentally impaired. “Epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness,” the text read, “are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity.” What if this had been the focus of Bryan’s objection? Mencken doubtless would still have mocked. But the moral and theological priorities of evangelical Christianity would have turned out differently. And evangelical fears would have been eventually justified by America’s shameful history of eugenics, and by the more rigorous application of the practice abroad. Instead, Bryan chose evolution—and in the end, the cause of human dignity was not served by the obscuring of human origins.

The consequences, especially for younger generations, are considerable. According to a recent survey by Barna, a Christian research firm, more than half of churchgoing Christian teens believe that “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.” This may be one reason that, in America, the youngest age cohorts are the least religiously affiliated, which will change the nation’s baseline of religiosity over time. More than a third of Millennials say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 points since 2007. Count this as an ironic achievement of religious conservatives: an overall decline in identification with religion itself.

By the turn of the millennium, many, including myself, were convinced that religious conservatism was fading as a political force. Its outsize leaders were aging and passing. Its institutions seemed to be declining in profile and influence. Bush’s 2000 campaign attempted to appeal to religious voters on a new basis. “Compassionate conservatism” was designed to be a policy application of Catholic social thought—an attempt to serve the poor, homeless, and addicted by catalyzing the work of private and religious nonprofits. The effort was sincere but eventually undermined by congressional-Republican resistance and eclipsed by global crisis. Still, I believed that the old evangelical model of social engagement was exhausted, and that something more positive and principled was in the offing.

I was wrong. In fact, evangelicals would prove highly vulnerable to a message of resentful, declinist populism. Donald Trump could almost have been echoing the apocalyptic warnings of Metaxas and Graham when he declared, “Our country’s going to hell.” Or: “We haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world.” Given Trump’s general level of religious knowledge, he likely had no idea that he was adapting premillennialism to populism. But when the candidate talked of an America in decline and headed toward destruction, which could be returned to greatness only by recovering the certainties of the past, he was strumming resonant chords of evangelical conviction.

Trump consistently depicts evangelicals as they depict themselves: a mistreated minority, in need of a defender who plays by worldly rules. Christianity is “under siege,” Trump told a Liberty University audience. “Relish the opportunity to be an outsider,” he added at a later date: “Embrace the label.” Protecting Christianity, Trump essentially argues, is a job for a bully.

It is true that insofar as Christian hospitals or colleges have their religious liberty threatened by hostile litigation or government agencies, they have every right to defend their institutional identities—to advocate for a principled pluralism. But this is different from evangelicals regarding themselves, hysterically and with self-pity, as an oppressed minority that requires a strongman to rescue it. This is how Trump has invited evangelicals to view themselves. He has treated evangelicalism as an interest group in need of protection and preferences.

A prominent company of evangelical leaders—including Dobson, Falwell, Graham, Jeffress, Metaxas, Perkins, and Ralph Reed—has embraced this self-conception. Their justification is often bluntly utilitarian: All of Trump’s flaws are worth his conservative judicial appointments and more-favorable treatment of Christians by the government. But they have gone much further than grudging, prudential calculation. They have basked in access to power and provided character references in the midst of scandal. Graham castigated the critics of Trump’s response to the violence during a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia (“Shame on the politicians who are trying to push blame on @POTUS”). Dobson has pronounced Trump a “baby Christian”—a political use of grace that borders on blasphemy. “Complaining about the temperament of the @POTUS or saying his behavior is not presidential is no longer relevant,” Falwell tweeted. “[Donald Trump] has single-handedly changed the definition of what behavior is ‘presidential’ from phony, failed & rehearsed to authentic, successful & down to earth.”

It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language. Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being, his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms. It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise. Falwell, Graham, and others are providing religious cover for moral squalor—winking at trashy behavior and encouraging the unraveling of social restraints. Instead of defending their convictions, they are providing preemptive absolution for their political favorites. And this, even by purely political standards, undermines the causes they embrace. Turning a blind eye to the exploitation of women certainly doesn’t help in making pro-life arguments. It materially undermines the movement, which must ultimately change not only the composition of the courts but the views of the public. Having given politics pride of place, these evangelical leaders have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense.

Every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States.

But setting matters of decency aside, evangelicals are risking their faith’s reputation on matters of race. Trump has, after all, attributed Kenyan citizenship to Obama, stereotyped Mexican migrants as murderers and rapists, claimed unfair treatment in federal court based on a judge’s Mexican heritage, attempted an unconstitutional Muslim ban, equivocated on the Charlottesville protests, claimed (according to The New York Times) that Nigerians would never “go back to their huts” after seeing America, and dismissed Haitian and African immigrants as undesirable compared with Norwegians.

For some of Trump’s political allies, racist language and arguments are part of his appeal. For evangelical leaders, they should be sources of anguish. Given America’s history of slavery and segregation, racial prejudice is a special category of moral wrong. Fighting racism galvanized the religious conscience of 19th-century evangelicals and 20th-century African American civil-rights activists. Perpetuating racism indicted many white Christians in the South and elsewhere as hypocrites. Americans who are wrong on this issue do not understand the nature of their country. Christians who are wrong on this issue do not understand the most-basic requirements of their faith.

Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.

If utilitarian calculations are to be applied, they need to be fully applied. For a package of political benefits, these evangelical leaders have associated the Christian faith with racism and nativism. They have associated the Christian faith with misogyny and the mocking of the disabled. They have associated the Christian faith with lawlessness, corruption, and routine deception. They have associated the Christian faith with moral confusion about the surpassing evils of white supremacy and neo-Nazism. The world is full of tragic choices and compromises. But for this man? For this cause?

Some evangelical leaders, it is worth affirming, are providing alternative models of social engagement. Consider Tim Keller, who is perhaps the most influential advocate of a more politically and demographically diverse evangelicalism. Or Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who demonstrates how moral conservatism can be both principled and inclusive. Or Gary Haugen, the founder of the International Justice Mission, who is one of the world’s leading activists against modern slavery. Or Bishop Claude Alexander of the Park Church in North Carolina, who has been a strong voice for reconciliation and mercy. Or Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, who shows the deep compatibility of authentic faith and authentic science. Or the influential Bible teacher Beth Moore, who has warned of the damage done “when we sell our souls to buy our wins.” Or the writer Peter Wehner, who has ceased to describe himself as an evangelical even as he exemplifies the very best of the word.

Evangelicalism is hardly a monolithic movement. All of the above leaders would attest that a significant generational shift is occurring: Younger evangelicals are less prone to political divisiveness and bitterness and more concerned with social justice. (In a poll last summer, nearly half of white evangelicals born since 1964 expressed support for gay marriage.) Evangelicals remain essential to political coalitions advocating prison reform and supporting American global-health initiatives, particularly on aids and malaria. They do good work in the world through relief organizations such as World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse (an admirable relief organization of which Franklin Graham is the president and CEO). They perform countless acts of love and compassion that make local communities more just and generous.

All of this is arguably a strong foundation for evangelical recovery. But it would be a mistake to regard the problem as limited to a few irresponsible leaders. Those leaders represent a clear majority of the movement, which remains the most loyal element of the Trump coalition. Evangelicals are broadly eager to act as Trump’s shield and sword. They are his army of enablers.

It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment. This is bad for America, because religion, properly viewed and applied, is essential to the country’s public life. The old “one-bloodism” of Christian anthropology—the belief in the intrinsic and equal value of all human lives—has driven centuries of compassionate service and social reform. Religion can be the carrier of conscience. It can motivate sacrifice for the common good. It can reinforce the nobility of the political enterprise. It can combat dehumanization and elevate the goals and ideals of public life.

Democracy is not merely a set of procedures. It has a moral structure. The values we celebrate or stigmatize eventually influence the character of our people and polity. Democracy does not insist on perfect virtue from its leaders. But there is a set of values that lends authority to power: empathy, honesty, integrity, and self-restraint. And the legitimation of cruelty, prejudice, falsehood, and corruption is the kind of thing, one would think, that religious people were born to oppose, not bless. This disfigurement of evangelical faith squanders the reputation of something valuable: not just the vision of human dignity that captured Blanchard, but also Finney’s electric waves of grace. At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death. And this feather of grace weighs more in the balance than any political gain.

It is difficult to see something you so deeply value discredited so comprehensively. Evangelical faith has shaped my life, as it has the lives of millions. Evangelical history has provided me with models of conscience. Evangelical institutions have given me gifts of learning and purpose. Evangelical friends have shared my joys and sorrows. And now the very word is brought into needless disrepute.

This is the result when Christians become one interest group among many, scrambling for benefits at the expense of others rather than seeking the welfare of the whole. Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way. And this sets an urgent task for evangelicals: to rescue their faith from its worst leaders.

If Only Right-Wing Christians Knew Where Their Ideas Came From

by Ira Chernus, AlterNet, November 12, 2013

mini-excerpts

Right wing political landscape

The media spotlight has focused on the growing split in the Republican Party between its corporate-business wing and the libertarian-leaning Tea Partiers. But what about the third leg of the GOP tripod…the evangelical Christian religious right?…what will determine the fate of the GOP, is which way the religious right will break in this intramural fight over the role of government…the split in the GOP runs smack down the middle of the religious right…Tea Partiers align with the libertarian call for smaller government. They see government as a force imposing its secular ways upon them…Many other evangelicals will join the corporate-business Republicans in rejecting the Tea Party’s extremist anti-government agenda. They’ll see why Tea Partying is a trap for them. Only a powerful government can do the things evangelicals want most, like banning abortion and gay marriage, and more generally, imposing strict rules of personal behavior on every American.

History

What most won’t see, though, is the hidden place where evangelicals and libertarians do meet: way back in U.S. history, where both movements were inspired by a radical worldview. Just as the libertarian call for less government has its roots in radical, not conservative, assumptions about human nature, so the religious right’s call for government intervention has deep roots in evangelical demands for policies that were radically progressive at the time. Some of them are still radical, even by today’s standards…use government to achieve their goals—goals that today’s progressives still struggle for, like a fair and just income tax structure, guaranteed equal pay for women, and government ownership of utilities and transportation systems…Populists. Their program was laid out most famously in the 1892 declaration of the People’s Party, which demanded that government support the interest of “the people,” not “capitalists, corporations, banks, trusts.”…the main weapon Populists aimed to use was political power—enough power to make sure that their policies were enacted through government legislation, regulation, and strict enforcement…The Knights of Labor, the Populists, and the Bryanites [William Jennings Bryan] were in many ways the forerunner of today’s progressive left. Their fusion of evangelical Christianity and strong progressive government holds lessons for, and poses questions to, progressives today.

Progressive movement – strategy

The Republican Party may or may not be cracking up. Cracks in the GOP alliance don’t necessarily mean any advantage for progressives, of course. But they are windows of opportunity, if the left knows how to take advantage of them. It’s all a question of strategy. A smart first step for progressives is to do whatever we can to widen those cracks. It’s the religious right, long the progressive left’s favorite target, that is now the richest target of opportunity. Because politically progressive evangelical Christianity is not merely a relic of the 19th century. It’s making a comeback. That presents left progressives with a challenge. In your struggle for justice, would you ally with people who share your commitment to greater economic equality but would like to see government ban abortion and gay marriage? Today the question may seem abstract and hypothetical. Soon enough it may become a very real issue of debate for progressive strategists, and there are bound to be good arguments on both sides.

Communications/message

However, everyone should be able to agree that at least progressives outside the evangelical community should begin talking to folks inside that circle who are open to hearing the progressive message. Evangelicals will have to filter the message through their own beliefs, which means phrasing it in a somewhat different language…The main goal here should be to make the progressive tent wide enough to make room for evangelicals…moving evangelicals to the left will also widen the cracks in the shaky conservative alliance and hasten the day when it can no longer hold itself together.

Full Excerpt

The media spotlight has focused on the growing split in the Republican Party between its corporate-business wing and the libertarian-leaning Tea Partiers. But what about the third leg of the GOP tripod, the one that used to get all the attention: the evangelical Christian religious right? That’s where the spotlight ought to be…

We know the corporate-business types want an active federal government, because it can be counted on to serve their interests, especially if Republicans regain control of it. We know that the libertarians, who are the driving force in the Tea Party, want to shrink government; that’s their whole reason for being.

What we don’t know yet, and what will determine the fate of the GOP, is which way the religious right will break in this intramural fight over the role of government. Even the conservative evangelicals themselves don’t know, because the split in the GOP runs smack down the middle of the religious right.

Many politically active evangelicals are happy to be Tea Partiers [3] and align with the libertarian call for smaller government. They see government as a force imposing its secular ways upon them…Many other evangelicals will join the corporate-business Republicans in rejecting the Tea Party’s extremist anti-government agenda. They’ll see why Tea Partying is a trap for them. Only a powerful government can do the things evangelicals want most, like banning abortion and gay marriage, and more generally, imposing strict rules of personal behavior on every American.

What most won’t see, though, is the hidden place where evangelicals and libertarians do meet: way back in U.S. history, where both movements were inspired by a radical worldview. Just as the libertarian call for less government has its roots in radical, not conservative, assumptions about human nature, so the religious right’s call for government intervention has deep roots in evangelical demands for policies that were radically progressive at the time. Some of them are still radical, even by today’s standards…use government to achieve their goals—goals that today’s progressives still struggle for, like a fair and just income tax structure, guaranteed equal pay for women, and government ownership of utilities and transportation systems…Populists. Their program was laid out most famously in the 1892 declaration of the People’s Party, which demanded that government support the interest of “the people,” not “capitalists, corporations, banks, trusts.”…the main weapon Populists aimed to use was political power—enough power to make sure that their policies were enacted through government legislation, regulation, and strict enforcement…The Knights of Labor, the Populists, and the Bryanites [William Jennings Bryan] were in many ways the forerunner of today’s progressive left. Their fusion of evangelical Christianity and strong progressive government holds lessons for, and poses questions to, progressives today.

The Republican Party may or may not be cracking up. Cracks in the GOP alliance don’t necessarily mean any advantage for progressives, of course. But they are windows of opportunity, if the left knows how to take advantage of them. It’s all a question of strategy.

A smart first step for progressives is to do whatever we can to widen those cracks. It’s the religious right, long the progressive left’s favorite target, that is now the richest target of opportunity. Because politically progressive evangelical Christianity is not merely a relic of the 19th century. It’s making a comeback [7].

That presents left progressives with a challenge. In your struggle for justice, would you ally with people who share your commitment to greater economic equality but would like to see government ban abortion and gay marriage? Today the question may seem abstract and hypothetical. Soon enough it may become a very real issue of debate for progressive strategists, and there are bound to be good arguments on both sides.

However, everyone should be able to agree that at least progressives outside the evangelical community should begin talking to folks inside that circle who are open to hearing the progressive message. Evangelicals will have to filter the message through their own beliefs, which means phrasing it in a somewhat different language.

Smart progressives will start learning that language, figuring out how to communicate with evangelicals and discover common ground. Smart progressives will also learn how to remind evangelicals, gently but persuasively, of their own radical political history, which many may not know.

The main goal here should be to make the progressive tent wide enough to make room for evangelicals. Though we are far from the 19th century, evangelicals can now, as then, bring a unique kind of energy into progressive movements that can pay off. As a side benefit, moving evangelicals to the left will also widen the cracks in the shaky conservative alliance and hasten the day when it can no longer hold itself together.       

Full text

The media spotlight has focused on the growing split in the Republican Party between its corporate-business wing and the libertarian-leaning Tea Partiers. But what about the third leg of the GOP tripod, the one that used to get all the attention: the evangelical Christian religious right? That’s where the spotlight ought to be.

We know the corporate-business types want an active federal government, because it can be counted on to serve their interests, especially if Republicans regain control of it. We know that the libertarians, who are the driving force in the Tea Party, want to shrink government; that’s their whole reason for being.

What we don’t know yet, and what will determine the fate of the GOP, is which way the religious right will break in this intramural fight over the role of government. Even the conservative evangelicals themselves don’t know, because the split in the GOP runs smack down the middle of the religious right.

Many politically active evangelicals are happy to be Tea Partiers [3] and align with the libertarian call for smaller government. They see government as a force imposing its secular ways upon them. And Tea Party politicians have been equally happy to talk the religious right talk because it wins them votes.

Many other evangelicals will join the corporate-business Republicans in rejecting the Tea Party’s extremist anti-government agenda. They’ll see why Tea Partying is a trap for them. Only a powerful government can do the things evangelicals want most, like banning abortion and gay marriage, and more generally, imposing strict rules of personal behavior on every American. The more the Tea Party weakens the government, the more it deprives the religious right of its most potent tool. That should be easy enough for most conservative evangelicals to see.

What most won’t see, though, is the hidden place where evangelicals and libertarians do meet: way back in U.S. history, where both movements were inspired by a radical worldview. Just as the libertarian call for less government has its roots in radical [4], not conservative, assumptions about human nature, so the religious right’s call for government intervention has deep roots in evangelical demands for policies that were radically progressive at the time. Some of them are still radical, even by today’s standards.  

As early as the 1820s, the evangelical style of Christianity was beginning to dominate American political life. It didn’t stop dominating until the 19th century was over.

Looking back across the history of that century you’ll find evangelicals, demanding strong government intervention in everyone’s life, popping up in all sorts of places. And most of those places are well to the left of where you might expect them, if your view of evangelical politics is shaped only by the era of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell.

Most famously, evangelical Christians led and filled the ranks of the movement to abolish slavery. Some (though far too few) even took the lead in treating African Americans as genuine equals. The best recent writing on the causes of the Civil War shows that evangelicalism was a crucial factor creating widespread popular resistance to the “peculiar institution.”

Without the spur of evangelical fervor there probably would have been no Republican Party, no President Lincoln, and no secession of the South. Slavery would not only have continued in the United States; it probably would have spread throughout the territories that became the new states of the Southwest, making it that much harder ever to abolish.

Antebellum evangelical reformers also took the lead in demanding that government provide free public education for all, more humane treatment of prisoners and the disabled, and more equality for women. Of course, most of their specific policy prescriptions seem too conservative by today’s progressive standards. But in their own day they were out on the cutting left edge of political life. And one of their demands—that government renounce war as an instrument of national policy—still sounds as radical as ever.

You’ll find all of these examples, and more, if you pick up any good book on 19th-century U.S. history.

I picked up one such book at random, just as I was beginning to write this column: Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America [5], one of the most insightful histories of the Gilded Age, from the 1870s to the 1890s. When historians go looking for evangelicals supporting left-leaning government policies, they almost always look at the era of reform before the Civil War, not the Gilded Age that followed it. Yet just thumbing through Trachtenberg’s book I easily found evidence that the pattern lasted right through the 19th century.

Trachtenberg points out the powerful evangelical impulse in two of the era’s greatest political bestsellers, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. George wrote glowingly of “the noble dreams of socialism.” Bellamy advocated “the religion of solidarity… a system of public ownership… to realize the idea of the nation … as a family, a vital union, a common life.”

Both denounced the injustices of the emerging corporate system with “evangelical fervor,” says Trachtenberg, sustained by “religious emotions of ‘solidarity.’”

But there was more going on than just utopian words. There were workers organizing in the factories and the streets, dominated in the 1870s and 1880s by the Knights of Labor. The Knights intended to use government to achieve their goals—goals that today’s progressives still struggle for, like a fair and just income tax structure, guaranteed equal pay for women, and government ownership of utilities and transportation systems.

And they built their movement upon “an unmistakable fusion of republicanism and evangelical Protestantism,” in Trachtenberg’s words. “Workers found in Protestantism a profound ‘notion of right’ for their struggles.” They made “’the religion of solidarity’ proclaimed by Edward Bellamy and other Protestant reformers … a living experience within labor.” Obviously they saw no conflict between evangelical Christianity and a strong central government enforcing laws to create economic justice.

By the 1890s the Knights’ leading role in labor movement had been eclipsed by the American Federation of Labor. But as the Knights declined, the spirit that moved them was being picked up by an eclectic mix of movements that came to be grouped under the umbrella term, Populists. Their program was laid out most famously in the 1892 declaration of the People’s Party, which demanded that government support the interest of “the people,” not “capitalists, corporations, banks, trusts.”

That declaration was “composed in evangelical accents” and “rang with echoes of revivalism” as well as “backwoods democracy and grassroots outrage,” as Trachtenberg writes. “Populist spokesmen clothed themselves in the garb of righteous evangels.”

Like the Knights, the Populists were on a crusade to eliminate sin. But their political ideas also “drew from the movement’s roots in native radicalism, in a secular rhetoric of ‘equal rights’ and ‘anti-monopoly.’” And the main weapon Populists aimed to use was political power—enough power to make sure that their policies were enacted through government legislation, regulation, and strict enforcement.

Like most historians, Trachtenberg traces the decline of the Populists to their fateful decision, in1896, to join with the Democrats in making William Jennings Bryan their joint candidate for president. Bryan ran three times for the top job and lost all three times. Today, on the left, he’s most remembered as the evangelical Christian zealot who decried the teaching of evolution in the 1924 Scopes trial. But the infamous trial came near the end of his long life.

For most of that life he, more than any other American, carried the banner of radical reform in the name of God. It’s worth reading the details in Michael Kazin’s recent biography of Bryan [6]. Kazin, a leading authority on Populism and an important progressive intellectual in his own right, makes it clear that in the late 19th century, and on into the early 20th, millions of evangelical Protestants saw it as a religious duty to demand that a strong government right the economic wrongs of the corporate capitalist system. The left in that era could not have emerged as a significant force without the tremendous boost it got from evangelical faith.

All this history should be more than mere curiosity to us. The Knights of Labor, the Populists, and the Bryanites were in many ways the forerunner of today’s progressive left. Their fusion of evangelical Christianity and strong progressive government holds lessons for, and poses questions to, progressives today.

The Republican Party may or may not be cracking up. Cracks in the GOP alliance don’t necessarily mean any advantage for progressives, of course. But they are windows of opportunity, if the left knows how to take advantage of them. It’s all a question of strategy.

A smart first step for progressives is to do whatever we can to widen those cracks. It’s the religious right, long the progressive left’s favorite target, that is now the richest target of opportunity. Because politically progressive evangelical Christianity is not merely a relic of the 19th century. It’s making a comeback [7].

That presents left progressives with a challenge. In your struggle for justice, would you ally with people who share your commitment to greater economic equality but would like to see government ban abortion and gay marriage? Today the question may seem abstract and hypothetical. Soon enough it may become a very real issue of debate for progressive strategists, and there are bound to be good arguments on both sides.

However, everyone should be able to agree that at least progressives outside the evangelical community should begin talking to folks inside that circle who are open to hearing the progressive message. Evangelicals will have to filter the message through their own beliefs, which means phrasing it in a somewhat different language.

Smart progressives will start learning that language, figuring out how to communicate with evangelicals and discover common ground. Smart progressives will also learn how to remind evangelicals, gently but persuasively, of their own radical political history, which many may not know.

The main goal here should be to make the progressive tent wide enough to make room for evangelicals. Though we are far from the 19th century, evangelicals can now, as then, bring a unique kind of energy into progressive movements that can pay off. As a side benefit, moving evangelicals to the left will also widen the cracks in the shaky conservative alliance and hasten the day when it can no longer hold itself together.    

See more stories tagged with:

gop [8],

republican party [9],

libertarian [10],

christian [11],

evangelical [12],

religious [13],

right-wing [14],

tea party [15]


Source URL: http://admin.alternet.org/belief/if-only-right-wing-christian-evangelicals-knew-where-their-ideas-came

Links:
[1] http://alternet.org
[2] http://admin.alternet.org/authors/ira-chernus
[3] http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/just-enough-city/2013/apr/22/how-religious-right-and-libertarians-buried-hatche/
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tea-party-and-right/if-only-tea-party-crowd-knew-where-their-ideas-came
[5] http://us.macmillan.com/theincorporationofamerica/AlanTrachtenberg
[6] http://www.randomhouse.com/book/90625/a-godly-hero-by-michael-kazin
[7] http://www.christianpost.com/news/author-new-evangelical-left-pushing-bounds-of-christianity-49287/
[8] http://admin.alternet.org/tags/gop
[9] http://admin.alternet.org/tags/republican-party
[10] http://admin.alternet.org/tags/libertarian-0
[11] http://admin.alternet.org/tags/christian-0
[12] http://admin.alternet.org/tags/evangelical
[13] http://admin.alternet.org/tags/religious
[14] http://admin.alternet.org/tags/right-wing
[15] http://admin.alternet.org/tags/tea-party-0
[16] http://admin.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

Are the Bible Thumpers Losing Their Grip on Our Politics?

AlterNet [1] / By Amanda Marcotte [2]  June 20, 2013

Excerpt

Is the religious right, which has been the electoral backbone of the Republican Party since the creation of the Moral Majority in the ’70s and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, in trouble? …the religious right…still wholly owns the Republican Party…Evangelical writer and pastor John S. Dickerson certainly seems to think so. In a piece published for the New York Times in December 2012, Dickerson bluntly declared [4] that evangelical Christians have become a tiny minority in America… research… found that Christians who call themselves evangelicals account for just 7 percent of Americans….Of course, if you were gauging by the behavior of Republican politicians, you’d think that evangelical Christianity was not only growing in popularity but growing in conservatism… This change was the direct result of many years of liberals highlighting, protesting, and fighting the Christian right’s abuses of power. To make sure this change takes, it’s important for liberals to keep up the fight.

Full text

Is the religious right, which has been the electoral backbone of the Republican Party since the creation of the Moral Majority in the ’70s and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, in trouble? The strongly right-wing Washington Times reports rather dimly on the conference for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group founded by religious right luminary Ralph Reed, because it couldn’t even gather 400 audience members, despite having a deep bench of fundamentalist-beloved politicians and celebrities like Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry and Scott Walker. The Times contrasted the small conference with its ’80s and ’90s counterpart, the Christian Coalition’s Road to the White House conventions, which drew thousands of participants every year.

If such a right-wing publication as the Washington Times is willing to hint at it, maybe it’s really time to ask the question: Is the Christian right beginning to lose its numbers, its mojo, and even its power? While it’s definitely too early to count them out—after all, the religious right, weird fantasies about masturbating fetuses [3] and all—still wholly owns the Republican Party at this point. Still, is there some hope on the horizon that their once-mighty numbers and power are beginning to dwindle?

Evangelical writer and pastor John S. Dickerson certainly seems to think so. In a piece published for the New York Times in December 2012, Dickerson bluntly declared [4] that evangelical Christians have become a tiny minority in America:

In the 1980s heyday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, some estimates accounted evangelicals as a third or even close to half of the population, but research by the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently found that Christians who call themselves evangelicals account for just 7 percent of Americans. (Other research has reported that some 25 percent of Americans belong to evangelical denominations, though they may not, in fact, consider themselves evangelicals.) Dr. Smith’s findings are derived from a three-year national study of evangelical identity and influence, financed by the Pew Research Center. They suggest that American evangelicals now number around 20 million, about the population of New York State.

One major reason is strictly demographic: Older fundamentalists are dying off and not being replaced by younger ones. Research by the Christian Barna Group shows that the 43% of young people raised as evangelicals [5] stop going to church once they grow up. The reasons that young people get disillusioned [6] with the church track nicely to the reasons the religious right is such a danger to American democracy and freedom: They disagree with the homophobic and sexually judgmental teachings. They disapprove of the church’s attacks on science. They find conservative Christianity intolerant and stifling.

Evangelical leaders themselves certainly believe they’re seeing a decline in influence in the United States. In a 2011 Pew Forum poll of evangelical leaders around the world, 82 percent of American evangelical leaders [7] said that evangelical Christianity was losing influence. Compare this to evangelical leaders in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and most of Asia, 58 percent who said that their faith was gaining influence. Which, sadly for the people of those countries, means more gay-bashing, more attacks on women’s rights, and more scientific illiteracy, though presumably the evangelical leaders see all these effects as good things.

Of course, if you were gauging by the behavior of Republican politicians, you’d think that evangelical Christianity was not only growing in popularity but growing in conservatism. The past few years have seen a dramatic escalation in the attacks on women’s rights [8], which politically can only be a bid for the fundamentalist votes, as most people outside the world of conservative Christianity are either pro-choice or don’t care enough about the issue to vote on it. (Yes, there are also Catholics, but despite their leadership, the majority of Catholics are pro-choice [9].) Not only that, but Republicans seem to have grown bolder in portraying themselves as religious extremists to pander to the religious right, often embracing absolutist approaches to abortion, opening up the war on choice to attacks on contraception, and sharing the bizarre, anti-science attitudes towards rape and pregnancy they pick up in their churches. While the majority of Americans turn toward favoring marriage equality for gays and straights, Republicans attack like the country still views the issue the way a megachurch pastor would, even going so far as to hire separate lawyers to defend DOMA when the Obama administration refused to do it.

All of this, as Todd Akin can attest, hurts you in the polls, and yet Republicans keep at it like they’re facing a country on the verge of having an evangelical majority, when in fact the exact opposite is happening. What gives?

Part of the problem is that while politicians have a reputation for being able to change their views on a dime, the reality is that they’re often thrown off by change and struggle to adapt. Many, possible most, Republican politicians are fundamentalist Christians themselves, and they started out in politics during the multi-decade heyday when being a Bible thumper was a sure path to power. It’s hard for them to accept that things have changed that quickly.

Akin is a classic example. Since 1988, Akin’s schtick as a wild-eyed anti-choice lunatic spouting every fundamentalist conspiracy theory [10] under the sun helped him win one office after another, usually annihilating his competition at the polls. When he made the move to run for Senate, it’s not surprising he thought the same strategy would work. After all, he’s tight with Paul Ryan [11], whom Republicans think of as their “mainstream” offering. They even authored anti-choice legislation together. Indeed, it’s easy to see how Akin would have easily won a few election cycles ago, “legitimate rape” comment and all. Back in the Bush era, being a dim-witted Bible thumper didn’t even block you from the presidency, so a Senate seat from highly religious Missouri should have been a breeze. The change has been happening so fast it’s no surprise Akin didn’t see it. Really, who could have?

Of course, as things can swiftly change for the better, they can just easily take a turn for the worse, so liberals shouldn’t sit on their laurels, confident that this decline in fundamentalism will last. This change was the direct result of many years of liberals highlighting, protesting, and fighting the Christian right’s abuses of power. To make sure this change takes, it’s important for liberals to keep up the fight.


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/belief/christian-right-0

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/amanda-marcotte
[3] http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/06/18/rep_mike_burgess_of_texas_suggests_banning_abortion_because_fetuses_masturbate.html
[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/opinion/sunday/the-decline-of-evangelical-america.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
[5] http://www.cnn.com/2011/12/16/opinion/stepp-millennials-church
[6] http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church
[7] http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Evangelical-Protestant-Churches/Global-Survey-of-Evangelical-Protestant-Leaders.aspx
[8] http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/06/16/conservatives-double-down-on-the-war-on-women/
[9] http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/topics/catholicsandchoice/documents/BRSCatholic.pdf
[10] http://stlouis.cbslocal.com/2012/10/03/akin-in-2008-doctors-give-abortions-to-patients-who-arent-pregnant/
[11] http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/08/20/712501/paul-ryan-and-todd-akin-partnered-on-radical-personhood-bill-outlawing-abortion-and-many-birth-control-pills/
[12] http://www.alternet.org/tags/christian-right
[13] http://www.alternet.org/tags/bible
[14] http://www.alternet.org/tags/politics-0
[15] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

The Great Religious Realignment

How did President Barack Obama just win a second term, prevailing in evangelical (and Catholic) intensive states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, and Virginia? By winning among voters other than white religious conservatives.

If you had listened to Ralph Reed or Tony Perkins, you might have thought the mighty values voters of 2004 were going to turn out in huge numbers and tip the election to Mitt Romney. Instead, he lost, as did the Republican Party’s worst specimens in the culture wars: the rape apologists Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. And marriage equality has passed in two states (as of this writing, Maryland and Maine), and pot was legalized in Washington and Colorado. (Brace yourself for tomorrow’s apocalyptic conference calls, emails, op-eds, and press briefings.)

But what went wrong for Reed, Perkins, et al.?

They represent a coalition in decline—white religious conservatives—while Obama has a more diverse one, made up of various religious and non-religious voters, whites, blacks, and Latinos. This story has been emerging even before the election.

The religious right made a huge mistake of hyping their clout. From two press releases yesterday:

Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins: “I would not be surprised to see tomorrow’s turnout of values voters eclipse what we saw in 2004.”

Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition: “The Faith and Freedom Coalition made over 122 million voter contacts to evangelicals, faithful Catholics, and other voters of faith in key states in 2012. FFC’s voter education effort included 23 million pieces of mail, 21 million get-out-the-vote calls, 18 million text messages and emails, and 30 million voter guides distributed in 117,000 churches.”

Their overblown turnout predictions either simply did not come true—or if they did, the results demonstrate that the “values voters” no longer have the clout to tip elections with their turnout. As I’ve been writing all night, based on initial exit polling data, Romney has been winning in battleground states among white evangelicals, white Catholics, and weekly churchgoers. But it wasn’t enough to give him a victory. In Pennsylvania, for example, while Romney won white Catholics and white Protestants, Obama won among Catholics as a whole, the unaffiliated, and non-white voters. In Ohio, evangelical turnout, at 31%, was higher than the evangelical proportion of the population (the Pew Religious Landscape Survey has it at 26%), so maybe Reed’s or Perkins’ GOTV worked. But the turnout wasn’t enough to push Romney over the top. Similarly, in Virginia, as I noted earlier, voters weren’t asked by exit pollsters if they were white born-again Christian or evangelical. But the exit poll had Romney winning among white Protestants, who make up 41% of voters, 75-25%, among white Catholics (11%), 64-33%, but Obama winning 89% of non-whites (33% of the electorate). Other data are showing that Obama won big among Latino voters generally.

The exit polls, like I have said, are imperfect: some states were not subjected to exit polling, and on religion questions, there’s so much inconsistency between how questions are asked in different states that it’s hard to compare two states where one includes data on evangelicals and the other does not. But given what we’ve learned recently about religious realignments—declining numbers of Catholics, declining numbers of mainline Protestants, declining numbers of evangelicals in the 18- to 29-year-old age group, and increasing numbers of unaffiliated voters, and in particular, atheists and agnostics in the 18- to 29-year-old age group—it seems like a significant shift is underway. A recent Pew survey found that there are now equal numbers of white evangelicals and unaffiliated voters, and a Public Religion Research Institute poll found similar results. I noted at the time of the PRRI survey that the bulk of Romney’s base was coming from white conservative evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics, while Obama’s “support comes from a more diverse group: 23% from the unaffiliated, 18% from black Protestants, 15% from white mainline Protestants, 14% from white Catholics, 8% from Latino Catholics, and 7% from non-Christians. Romney draws just 3% of his base from Latino Catholics, 2% from non-Christians, and an unmeasurable portion from black Protestants.”

It looks like a religious realignment is well on its way. That’s not to suggest (as I’ve said before) that the culture wars are going away. But the same narratives about “values voters” and the evangelical vote, even with its growing alignment with conservative Catholics, do not have the same explanatory—or electoral—power they once claimed.

http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/sarahposner/6593/the_great_religious_realignment

Crimes Against the Soul of America by Caroline Myss

Huffington Post, September 5, 2009

Excerpt 

There is such a thing as a crime against the soul of a nation. A person or a political party can deliberately incite actions that diminish the strength, the integrity, and the overall well-being of a nation’s inner core. America’s soul is in a fragile state. It has suffered severe violations over the course of this past decade and to lesser degrees, in previous decades…of all the crimes covertly and overtly committed by the Bush administration against the soul of America, none is as vile as the deliberate efforts they poured into turning American against American. We see that in the near hatred between the Republicans and Democrats, between liberals and conservatives, between free-thinkers and evangelicals that continues to fester. This crime was a strategic one, a well thought out plan to fragment the people of this nation in a type of contemporary replay of the Civil War. And sadly, the Republicans succeeded. Thank you, Karl Rove. The result is that the soul of America is exhausted, wounded, mistrusting, suspicious, fearful — and compromised. This is not a soul that can rebuild a country, not if you know anything about the laws of nature and the fundamentals of healing…

Students on a path toward becoming high functioning human beings must be guided in matters of their soul, namely, how to recognize and respond to a moral crisis; how to formulate a personal ethical code and to withstand challenges to that code within a society that thrives on predator instincts; and how to form and maintain an honor code within a society in which any sense of honor is now held together by legal contracts rather than the integrity of a person’s word…

we now have a public that cannot discern lies from truth…

A conscious effort to “dumb down” the education of this nation qualifies as a crime against the soul of America….

There comes a time when we have to just stand up to these carnies (slang for carnival barkers) and tell them to stop polluting the soul of America with their constant and endless transmission of psychic free radicals in the form of lies, negative press, ridiculous criticism, overall lack of intelligent ideas and comments, and complete absence of creative thought. We should just blast them with emails and tell them to stop polluting the soul of our nation. Just stop it. We’ve had enough. I know I have. And I deeply believe the soul of our nation can’t take much more of their strategy of deliberate division against the people of their own nation. That is a true crime — and perhaps their greatest crime — against the soul of this great nation.  

Full Text 

There is such a thing as a crime against the soul of a nation. A person or a political party can deliberately incite actions that diminish the strength, the integrity, and the overall well-being of a nation’s inner core. America’s soul is in a fragile state. It has suffered severe violations over the course of this past decade and to lesser degrees, in previous decades. Through the years, the essential integrity of America has been eroded for various reasons but never was it so violated as during the Bush administration. The endless lies, the deceitful years of propaganda that flowed from the West Wing that fed the media, the bogus reasons for setting the Middle East on fire, and converting this country into a corporate state for personal gain are crimes that shattered the soul of this nation more deeply than we have even begun to realize — if we ever will. The consequences of puncturing the soul of a nation are witnessed in countless ways. For example, there is a decline in the integrity of leadership and a growing apathy on the part of the public to care about keeping watch over its leaders. The nation ceases to produce statesmen or stateswomen. The best the public can do is to send semi-qualified individuals to Washington whose capacity to hold to their promises collapse within minutes of unpacking in their new offices. As for the old guard, they are worn out good old boys mixed in with a few new and not-so-new women on the block, who continue to fall into their same old patterns of deal making and breaking. But nothing of great significance ever happens unless motivated by a catastrophe. Any truly positive ideas for change baffle the Congress. What could this be, they wonder? But of all the crimes covertly and overtly committed by the Bush administration against the soul of America, none is as vile as the deliberate efforts they poured into turning American against American. We see that in the near hatred between the Republicans and Democrats, between liberals and conservatives, between free-thinkers and evangelicals that continues to fester. This crime was a strategic one, a well thought out plan to fragment the people of this nation in a type of contemporary replay of the Civil War. And sadly, the Republicans succeeded. Thank you, Karl Rove. The result is that the soul of America is exhausted, wounded, mistrusting, suspicious, fearful — and compromised. This is not a soul that can rebuild a country, not if you know anything about the laws of nature and the fundamentals of healing.

 

So let’s apply this to the Republicans present attack on Obama and his plan to address the children in the classrooms of our schools. First, a comment on how education is respected in general by our Congress — it isn’t. And this crime against the soul of America is a travesty for which both Republicans and Democrats should hang their heads in shame. Consider, for example, how the education system through the years has corroded into little more than a mindless competition for grades. And the “No Child Left Behind” program (which should be left far, far behind) is nothing more than an insult to a true educational system that holds in high regard the passing on of knowledge and wisdom and not just technical skills and information. But such a program is in keeping with the insidious goal of the “dumbing down” of America plan that was consciously set in motion under the Reagan Administration (check out The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America by Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt). Aside from all the many travesties that have resulted and continue to result from the covert dismantling of America’s educational system, let us consider the equally significant if not more tragic consequence of the clever removal of courses that provide students with the essential language required in order to learn how to navigate through the deep and profound matters of the soul. And note that my use of the word “soul” refers to that part of a human being that is more than matter, more than blood and bones. I am not using the word “soul” within the context associated with the politics of right-winged religious fanatics. Rather, I am referring to the essence of what makes a human being truly human, the inherent part of us that is more than meets the eye.

 

Students on a path toward becoming high functioning human beings must be guided in matters of their soul, namely, how to recognize and respond to a moral crisis; how to formulate a personal ethical code and to withstand challenges to that code within a society that thrives on predator instincts; and how to form and maintain an honor code within a society in which any sense of honor is now held together by legal contracts rather than the integrity of a person’s word. Giving our students a common ground for discussions of their fears and insecurities concerning emerging into adult life and how to cope with those difficulties is as much a part of their education as is math and the liberal arts (remember those?). If this is not the role of the classroom, then what is? Should they take their forums into the streets so as not to upset the righteous Right? Should they continue to leave their souls at the doorway of their school buildings, sending in only their bodies and minds to attend their classes? Where should they warehouse their consciences? Where should they store their moral crises that strike with such force during the teen-age years? Perhaps this is the comfort they find in drugs.

 

It is through discussions such as these that skills of introspection are awakened and a foundation is put in place for the wisdom arts: personal reflection and accountability, discernment, personal virtue, and stamina of spirit. Is it any wonder that as a result of the horrendous decision of the American Congress to “dumb down” our educational system, we now have a public that cannot discern lies from truth? Are we really surprised that we are now living in a society in which the news media saturates us with entertainment instead of actual news and that most of America was too asleep at the wheel to even notice? Should we really have to wonder for more than three seconds as to why so many media reporters have turned into nothing more than gossip mongers and paparazzi, lacking all courage to do actual hard core news, substituting their own hysterical opinions for informed reporting? I’m not surprised at all.

 

A conscious effort to “dumb down” the education of this nation qualifies as a crime against the soul of America. And dare I say this? If there was something as grievous as a mortal sin committed by a group against its own people, then the Republicans — with Reagan at the helm — and all the Democrats who stood by, or worse, backed this catastrophe — committed that sin when they choreographed how they would dismantle the intellectual power and potential of our own children. (You should check your age — you could be a product of this crime.)

 

So is it really any wonder why the Republicans would stage this outlandish outcry over President Obama addressing the schoolchildren of America? You would think that everyone would support the President’s desire to inspire our children to want an education. Who would not want to see their children enthusiastic about an education? Hum … Well, could it be that education intimidates them? I mean, given their history with education and their experience with their recent president as well as their recent candidate for vice-president, you can appreciate that the education of President Obama would engender a bit of jealousy. Consider that when Bush showed up in a classroom, they gave him My Pet Goat to read to the students. Why was that, ya think? Perhaps his team feared a more sophisticated book would be a bit too much for him. Or maybe he was providing students with an example of how “dumbing down” works. Or maybe, just maybe, given Bush’s overall success and reputation for brain-power, Republicans fear Obama would inspire students instead of generating the jokes and comedic responses Bush did every time he opened his mouth.

 

I can’t begin to count the number of times I listened to Bush joke about his own lack of intelligence before an audience. The audience members that included some now former as well as present members of the Congress and Senate, actually laughed as he made these comments. Whether they were laughing with him or at him, I couldn’t tell. I know I was laughing at him, but I was also embarrassed and ashamed that this man was leading our country. How could he possibly joke about his lack of intelligence before a State Dinner? How could he laugh about his inability to comprehend matters of great importance? Why would he think that the public would find that funny? And if the public did find that funny, shame on them. 

The vice-presidential candidate that the Republicans ran in the past election against Obama was of equal educational quality. We all know who I mean, Miss Lipstick-on-a-Pig. Even her humor is low-class, in keeping with her intelligence. One has to ask, “So this was the candidate Republicans believed could handle the cosmic-sized dilemmas we now have facing this nation?” Sarah Palin? Are they nuts? Listening to those Republicans lie about their support of her in the face of the crises facing this nation was a crime against the soul of America. Why? Because they did not believe a word of what they were saying and that was obvious. Most of them could barely cough up their contrived words of support. How they could possibly live with themselves is beyond me. But that is the blessing, I suppose, of having no conscience whatsoever. You’re free to say whatever is required in the moment. But if you want to talk about an educational violation, Palin is the poster child. She is a perfect example of the success of the “dumbing down of America” program. No wonder she is a Republican. Birds of a feather, as the saying goes. But you have to give credit where credit is due, yes? So no wonder they fear Obama coming near the classroom. Republicans have little experience with a refined intellect. (They probably are wondering how Obama escaped the, “dumbing down” system. They certainly didn’t. Check out Eric Cantor. There’s a “dumbing down” success story if I’ve ever met one.) 

I don’t blame them for being upset, really. They actually owe America an apology for their actions and for their choices of candidates and for their overall quality control when it comes to who they believe qualifies for leadership positions. Truth is, the Republicans are embarrassed by their own actions and they are poor losers, not to mention unethical and immoral opponents. We just have to get them to own that, right? We have to hold all Democrats to the same standard as well. If a Democrat is unethical or immoral — burn them at the stake. (That will probably clear out most of the Congress, but in the end, we’ll all be better off.) 

There comes a time when we have to just stand up to these carnies (slang for carnival barkers) and tell them to stop polluting the soul of America with their constant and endless transmission of psychic free radicals in the form of lies, negative press, ridiculous criticism, overall lack of intelligent ideas and comments, and complete absence of creative thought. We should just blast them with emails and tell them to stop polluting the soul of our nation. Just stop it. We’ve had enough. I know I have. And I deeply believe the soul of our nation can’t take much more of their strategy of deliberate division against the people of their own nation. That is a true crime — and perhaps their greatest crime — against the soul of this great nation.  

Caroline Myss is author of “Sacred Contracts” 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/caroline-myss/crimes-against-the-soul-o_b_278188.html