The Dark Side of Religion in America

This is a rewriting of something I began in 2014, for an unpublished book called Republican Jesus. Since then many things have changed in the American landscape. Evangelicalism has taken a precipitous drop as a percentage of the US population, particularly among younger Americans.[i] My views since I first wrote this have also evolved. I am no longer a leader in an Evangelical church. I have been living in Europe for the past few years. And it is time that I rewrote this with new eyes.

I remember that it was January, 1993. Bill Clinton had just been sworn in as President and I had returned to school to get a graduate degree in history. I was sitting in her living room as she glared at me her voice raising, “You can’t be a Christian and a Democrat!” I sat nervously sipping my coffee. “It is simply not possible!” At the time I was the 35-year-old newly appointed pastor of her church, a congregation in which I was likely to be the only Democrat. She was a politically active member of the religious right whose husband and extended family were involved in local Republican politics. My somewhat timid response was that I was indeed both a Christian and a member of the Democratic Party. I then tried to explain, futilely, how the two were not mutually exclusive. But to no avail, she continued to insist that I could not be a Christian and a “liberal.” Her husband soon returned to the room and as he listened in to our conversation his growing anger became palpable. He later advocated the idea of killing gay people, and at some point, began referring to me as “that damned communist preacher.” I began avoiding them and they soon left the church. This entire way of thinking was antithetical to the kind of Christian I wished to be. Though it seemed to be outside the norm, there was a growing number of people who seemed to feel this way. That number has grown and become more vocal since then.

Yet in 1993 this was not my normal experience with Republicans, nor most members of the religious right. People of good will still existed in both groups, people whom I knew to be sincere. People who knew how to disagree without demonizing the other. Conversely, I knew people that held political views I agreed with, but who were truly terrible human beings on a personal level. But the exchange I recount here stands as an example of the way conservative Evangelicals came to view politics as a test of faith in the early 1990’s. And, to be fair, my own views have evolved quite significantly the opposite way since then.

“Let’s just get religion out of politics!” is something I often hear from my secular friends. And on the surface, I think that sounds like a great idea. It is of course not possible. Everyone brings their belief system to the voting booth. And throughout history, religion has always eventually become political, and in reverse, politics have often taken on the fervor and devotion of religion. The Protestant Reformation that began with Martin Luther was used by the German princes to organize the common people, and the newly emerging middle class, against the Holy Roman Empire. John Calvin’s theocratic Geneva served as a model for other political movements, including Oliver Cromwell’s “Protectorate,” and the Puritans who settled in New England. Historian Michael Walzer, in his now classic book, The Revolution of the Saints, credits this Calvinism in part, with making Western democratic revolution possible. An example of this is the Scottish National Covenant, which was simultaneously a document asserting Scottish Nationalism and an important historical document for the Presbyterian Church. The Great Awakening in the original thirteen colonies aided in making the American Revolution possible. As people in the colonies encountered the concept of individual liberty from sin, and personal encounter with God, in the revival preaching of George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, they were also given the idea of choice. Thus, if they could choose the church they associated with — in some cases elect the ministers of their choice — why couldn’t they also choose their own form of government? The great awakening also made it possible to consider choosing not to believe. I like to tell my students that the Great Awakening aided the idea that atheism should also be a personal choice.

The Second Great Awakening, associated with people such as Charles Finney, heightened awareness of the evils of slavery, and contributed greatly to the anti-slavery cause in the North. The Civil War, as historian Mark Noll has shown, was in part a theological crisis spurred on by this religious revival.[ii] That crisis quickly became political in the most fundamental way. The preachers of the social gospel influenced the political changes that moved the Gilded Age into the Progressive Era. Historians have noted that the Civil Rights movement would have had far less impact on American society in the 50’s and 60’s if pastors like Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy and so many others had not made it happen. These leaders used the language of the bible and southern Christianity to sway moderate white people to either support them, or at least remain neutral.[iii] None of this touches the way in which religion has dominated American foreign policy, as people such as Cambridge historian Andrew Preston and others have shown.[iv]

The issue that we need to consider is not whether religion belongs in (or perhaps will inevitably be in) politics, but what kind of religion belongs in politics, and how an institution such as the church — which should remain a prophetic, independent institution — should respond in the modern political climate. If the church is to be truly universal, then it needs to remain both welcoming to all sides of the political debate and, potentially confrontational to all sides. The church must also acknowledge the right of other religions, and non-believers, to live in harmony in a harmonious civil society. If it does not, it will become loathsome to all. Just another institution of accrued power. The decline of religion among millennials reflects the fact that for millennials this is exactly how American religion looks. To them it has become the defender of accrued power, abusers, allied with the rich, and supportive of the institutions that hurt the poor, the marginalized, and helpless.

In the United States the dominant religious ethos spanning the time from the First Great Awakening until the middle of the 20th century has been that of evangelicalism. Until recently it remained the largest single religious force in America. It formed the core of the American Civil religion which historian Henry May described as “Progressive Patriotic Protestantism.”[v] The political pattern of this evangelicalism was more often on the progressive left than it was on the conservative right. While evangelicals in the 18th and 19th centuries were forefront in maintaining personal moral values, they were also deeply interested in issues of social justice and poverty. Thus, the progressive movements of the 19th century found evangelicals in the forefront of reform involving child labor, the abolition of slavery, prison reform, economic injustice, and women’s rights. Until now. Now, aside from a small growing Evangelical left, mainstream evangelicalism has become all that many common people have come to despise in religion. The selling of its soul for political power, protection of the ruling and privileged elites, and the continued support of the systems that marginalize the poor, minorities, and women. Nowhere is this more obvious than the total, uncritical support many evangelicals have given to President Donald Trump, certainly a man as far from the idea of historic evangelicalism as any modern occupant of the White House. They do this for power. In exchange for their support, he seems to regularly throw them the bones of their social agenda, while stoking their fears of the loss of power. For those interested in a basic understanding of what a tremendous departure from evangelical history this is, a quick look at the PBS American Experience series “God in America” would be a good starting point.[vi]

As noted, it is a phenomenon of the late 20th century that finds evangelicals substantially on the right of American politics. This is the product of several historic circumstances as well as a tribute to the savvy organizational skills of the Reagan-era Republican Party. As Republican strategists studied the political landscape following the 1976 election in which Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford after speaking openly about being “born again,” a strategy developed. Historian Randall Balmer documents this in his concise history of the Religious Right “Thy Kingdom Come.”[vii] Following the Carter election and leading up to the subsequent presidential contest between Carter and Reagan, Republican strategists needed to bring evangelical voters to their side. To do this they seized upon the accident of many new converts coming into evangelical churches from the Jesus movement — a spiritual awakening among young people in the 1960s and 70s — many of whom were coming out of the counter culture. Historians have tried to document this, among them Preston Shires and David Stowe.[viii] There will need to be more work done on this to convince the skeptics, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. What these histories show is that the Republican Party was very interested in bringing these new activist voters into the fold. One way they could do this was to find issues that resonated with these people and ways to couple them to their broader economic and political agenda. These issues turned out to be race, abortion, and sexuality. Upon these social issues they were able to attach a conservative, pro-wealthy economic agenda.

The religious right is more energized today than ever, even as its numbers are declining rapidly. There is a substantial shift in American politics which includes an increasingly agnostic Ayn Rand libertarian strain on the right and a younger more progressive evangelical element on the left. But whatever these shifting patterns do, and whatever new alliances form, the American church will need to understand that it gave up its soul when it relied on political alliances rather than being true to its outsider mission of bringing good news, caring for the poor, loving the outcast, and caring for those un-cared for.

Where will this go now? The election of Donald Trump to the presidency was a nuclear explosion for the movement. It has served to unmask any pretense of gentility among those on the right who continue to support him. The mental gymnastics of defending policies and statements of overt racism, hatred of immigrants, reliance on power for morality, all demonstrate a clear break with the very tenants of the religion that they read about in their scriptures.

I will close this first installment with a recent quote from Michael Gerson regarding Evangelical leader Franklin Graham. “Graham has become a prophet in exact reverse. Instead of calling out Trump’s cruelty and poor character, he excuses it. Instead of confronting corruption, Graham blesses it. His message reveals nothing about God’s priorities and everything about his own. He has found his pearl of great price — the political welfare of Donald Trump — and has sold everything else to buy it.”[ix]

Where this soul selling will end is anyone’s guess. Stay tuned.

[i] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/12/millennials-increasingly-are-driving-growth-of-nones/

[ii] https://www.uncpress.org/book/9781469621814/the-civil-war-as-a-theological-crisis/

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/08/books/chapters/a-stone-of-hope.html

[iv] https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/133770/sword-of-the-spirit-shield-of-faith-by-andrew-preston/9781400078585/

[v] https://s-usih.org/2016/03/reconsidering-henry-f-mays-the-enlightenment-in-america/

[vi] https://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/study-guide/

[vii] Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelicals Lament, Basic Books, 2006.

[viii] Preston Shires, Hippies of the Religious Right: From the Counter Cultures of Jerry Garcia to the Sub Culture of Jerry Fallwell, Waco, Baylor University Press, 2007, and David Stowe, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism, The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

[ix] https://calgaryherald.com/opinion/columnists/gerson-trump-evangelicals-have-sold-their-souls-for-politics

Some people think Malcolm may have done nearly everything in his life. It is not true, he is just interested in everything and knows how to tell a good story.