The Politics Of Fear And American Evangelicalism

Jun 29th, 2024 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

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In April 1976 Christianity Today declared, “Christians in particular ought to be concerned about the ethical and religious convictions of those who aspire to the presidency.  The basis upon which a leader makes his decisions is more important than what side he takes in current transient controversies.”    Furthermore, in the midst of the late-1990s Clinton scandal, a group of evangelical Christian scholars issued a “Declaration Concerning Religion, Ethics and the Crisis in the Clinton Presidency,” which declared:

We are aware that certain moral qualities are central to the survival of our political system, among which are truthfulness, integrity, respect for the law, respect for the dignity of others, adherence to the constitutional process, and a willingness to avoid the abuse of power.  We reject the premise that violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed with a strong economy.

In 1998, Gary Bauer, then the president of the Family Research Council, wrote that “children cannot be set adrift into a culture that tells them that lying is okay, that fidelity is old-fashioned and that character doesn’t count.” And he pointed to Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky: “The seamy facts under public discussion are shameful enough. But fascination with this story should not be allowed to obscure the deeper lesson these incidents impart. That lesson is this: Character counts—in a people, in the institutions of our society, and in our national leadership. In character is destiny. Our founders believed and set down in their own words that only a virtuous people could remain free.”

Reading such statements from evangelicals in the late 20th century is stunning in light of the fact that about 81% of evangelicals today support a man who fails on all counts of the standards important in 1976 and in the 1990s.  What has happened?

Peter Wehner, Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, has written a profoundly important paper answering the question, “what has happened?”  Wehner provides a helpful historical overview of the situation in 2024.  What follows is a summary of his important argument.

  •  “For much of the 20th century, evangelicals were disengaged from American politics, in part because of the humiliation of the 1925 Scopes ‘monkey trial,’ in which one of the nation’s most prominent evangelicals and politicians, William Jennings Bryan—a populist Democrat who ran for president three times—prosecuted the case against a high-school teacher, John T. Scopes, who was charged with violating Tennessee state law for teaching evolution in schools. Bryan, who also testified, won the case but hurt his cause. (Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality.) Outside of fundamentalist circles, Bryan and the movement he represented, which attacked the empirical findings of science, became the object of ridicule.”
  • “In 1965 a young Independent Baptist pastor, Jerry Falwell, argued that the Church should be separate from the world. ‘We have few ties to this earth,’ he said. The civic responsibilities of Christians were therefore limited: obey the law, pay taxes, vote. But that was about it. ‘I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else,’ Falwell said, ‘including fighting communism, or participating in civil-rights reforms.’”
  • “. . . [T]he 1970s saw the rise of the religious right. It was a response to what conservative Christians considered to be a whole series of rapid, disorienting changes in social and moral norms. The 1960s ushered in the feminist movement and the sexual revolution. There was Woodstock and the Stonewall Riots, the birth of the National Organization of Women, and a wave of campus uprisings.  In the 1970s a whole series of issues—the Equal Rights Amendment, gay-rights ordinances, regulations on Christian schools, the IRS threatening to strip Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status because of its policy against interracial dating, the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion—convinced many evangelicals and fundamentalists that their values were being subverted, their way of life assaulted. Political activism became a form of cultural resistance—and eventually, they hoped, a means to cultural victory. ‘The critical development in the mid-1970s was mobilization, and on a national scale,’ the historian Mark A. Noll wrote in The New Republic. ‘As that mobilization took place, it transformed well-established traditions of evangelical and fundamentalist religion into a political instrument.’”
  • “By the late 1970s, Falwell, who a decade earlier had advocated separatism, was embracing political activism. In addition to serving as pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and chancellor of Liberty University, which he founded in 1971, Falwell was organizing ‘I Love America’ rallies at state capitols. In 1979 he founded the Moral Majority, whose purpose was to mobilize conservative Christians against ‘secular humanism’ and what he later called ‘permissiveness.’ ‘We are fighting a holy war,’ he said, ‘and this time we are going to win.’ He was hardly alone. Falwell counted as allies pastors, televangelists, and theologians; leaders of para-church organizations and ‘pro-family’ ministries; Christian television programs (like The 700 Club) and radio shows with a massive reach (like Focus on the Family); and Christian political activists.”
  • “Leading up to the 1980 election, evangelicals tended to be more Democratic than non-evangelicals were. (Fifty-seven percent of evangelicals described themselves as Democrats compared with 47 percent of non-evangelicals.) In 1976, Jimmy Carter split the evangelical vote with Gerald Ford. During the 1980 presidential election, however, Falwell pledged to mobilize voters for Ronald Reagan, ‘even if he has the devil running with him.’  Reagan defeated the incumbent Democratic president, Carter, in a landslide, winning about two-thirds of the evangelical vote. Four years later, Reagan carried almost three-quarters of the evangelical vote. The mass migration of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians to the Republican Party was well under way. American politics was changing in profound ways; so, too, was the evangelical movement.”
  • “The rhetoric had turned apocalyptic. In 1980, Falwell said that America was ‘floundering to the brink of death.’  A year later, D. James Kennedy, the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a leading religious conservative, told 2,000 delegates at a joint meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters and the National Association of Evangelicals that evangelicals should increase their level of political involvement because ‘secular humanists have declared war on Christianity in this country and they are progressing very rapidly.’  In 1982, the theologian Francis Schaeffer, one of evangelicalism’s most important public intellectuals in the latter half of the 20th century, gave a speech in which he warned that America ‘is close to being lost.’  He warned about ‘the Humanist conspiracy’ and said that if public schools didn’t teach creation as well as evolution, that amounted to ‘tyranny.’ In A Christian Manifesto, the book that emerged from his speech, Schaeffer warned about an ‘elite authoritarianism’ that would systematically destroy the Christian worldview. It is not too strong to say that we are at war, and there are no neutral parties in this struggle,’ Schaeffer wrote.”

Among evangelicals and fundamentalists an mood of fear emerged—the belief that catastrophe was just around the corner, a sense that those who didn’t share their views were out to destroy their country, their values, their children. For many evangelicals, politics became a contest between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. They raged against their opponents, whom they saw less as fellow citizens than as their enemies. Politics became drenched in grievances and demonization, almost always aimed at liberals and Democrats, especially Democratic presidents. Evangelical leaders set the tone.  For three and a half decades, apocalyptic thinking, frustration, and fury helped define the politics of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. “The intensity of the fear fluctuated, but it never fully waned.”

Indeed, Michael Wear in his book, The Spirit of Our Politics, suggests that a religious perspective emerged that offered a divine affirmation of one’s politics (see pp. 18-19):

  • God is on my political party’s side.
  • My views on political issues are a leading indicator that I am a true Christian.
  • My actions in politics are justified in light of God’s general approval of my politics.
  • I do not understand how other “Christians” could vote for my candidate’s opponent.
  • It is clear and obvious which political issues are most important to God.

For decades evangelicals insisted that good character was essential in political leaders, and especially in presidents. That was certainly the case when evangelicals lacerated Clinton for his moral failures.  But, as Wehner observes, “once Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, Bauer, like many influential evangelical figures—including Franklin Graham, son of the famed preacher Billy Graham; Jerry Falwell Jr., who was the president of Liberty University before he was ousted amid scandal; Robert Jeffress; Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family; Tony Perkins, Family Research Council’s longest-serving president; and Wayne Grudem, a theologian and an author—fell into line behind Trump. In doing so, they embraced a man whose personal, political, and business ethics are not only far more compromised and corrupt than Bill Clinton’s; they are unsurpassed in the history of the American presidency. For evangelical leaders and for those representing the movement, character no longer counted.”  White evangelical Christians are the most consistently reliable supporters of the most polarizing and morally depraved president in American history. It has hurt America, and it has done tremendous damage to the witness of the Christian faith.

See Peter Wehner, “Where Did Evangelicals Go Wrong?” in The Atlantic (3 March 2024); Daniel K. Williams in (6 March 2024) ; and Russell Moore, “Moore to the Point” (21 March 2024);

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