Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Evangelical Kaleidoscope: Part Three -Evangelicalism and Politics

Evangelicals have always been drawn to the halls of political power, even when that has meant partnering with strange allies. This has led to governmental influence, but it has also corroded what Roger Williams called the “separation between the garden of the church in the wilderness of the world.”

Part One: Evangelical History In A Quadrilateral Nutshell

Part Two: Quadrilateral"isms" (Racism, Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, Neo-Evangelicalism)


A major turning point for American evangelicals came in 1951 when Billy Graham urged Dwight Eisenhower to run for president. Eisenhower had grown up in a Christian family (he was named after Dwight Moody). He had no particular religious commitment, but he felt that the Judeo-Christian tradition was essential to the health of the American republic. Graham liked Eisenhower's strong anti-communist views,[1] and Eisenhower invited Graham to help him inject spirituality into his speeches.
Eisenhower and Graham became the modern architects of an American Civil religion that combined spirituality and patriotism. This trend accelerated during the 1980s, when many evangelicals began to conflate political power and access to Republican leaders with the advancement of God's Kingdom.[2]

In 1979, Paul Weyrich, a Catholic Republican who founded the Heritage Foundation, convinced Jerry Falwell that there was a “moral majority” of Americans who still believed in the Judeo-Christian principles of the Ten Commandments. Whoever organized these people could secure political power through the Republican party in the name of traditional morality.

This had been simmering for a while. Republicans and Democrats both shared an anti-communism fervor during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, but for evangelicals, fear of communism and nuclear war took on an apocalyptic cast and fueled interest in End Times theology.[3] An evangelicalism once skeptical of the of the military found a new admiration for men in uniform. Those fighting for Communism must conversely be fighting for Christians values, right?[4](This support would only increase post-9/11. The enemy was different, but the fight was the same.)

Republicans cultivated evangelical support by presenting themselves as tough on communism. Communism was anti-God, anti-American, anti-family, and anti-God given rights.[5] Nixon made this a defining issue. The spiritualization of anti-communism helped to make the privately profane Nixon, a lapsed Quaker, a favorite of white evangelicals.[6] (Nixon was already preferable to Kennedy because of enduring Protestant hostility toward Catholics.) Billy Graham, the NAE, and the SBC all preferred Nixon over Kennedy.[7]

The Supreme Court's ban on school-sponsored Bible reading and prayer in the early 1960s also alarmed evangelicals.[8] However, their response to Engel vs Vitale[9] in 1962 was mixed. The NAE said the decision was regrettable; Billy Graham wondered if the world would think America really was a nation under God. Some African-American Baptist pastors opposed the decision; Martin Luther King thought it was sound. Christianity Today accepted the decision, arguing that the prayer was so vague it was not worth defending. Billy Graham eventually agreed with CT, acknowledging that true believers should not want the government to compose prayers for them. (Here we are 50 years later revisiting the same topic…)

A decision in 1963 alarmed evangelicals even more. In Abington School District vs. Schempp, the Supreme Court struck down a Pennsylvania law mandating daily Bible readings in school. The NAE, along with Catholics and fundamentalists, called for a constitutional amendment to counteract these rulings. The SBC, on the other hand, actually passed a resolution opposing an amendment that would overturn the decision, since Southern Baptists were friendlier to church-state separation then were other evangelicals. In spite of some in-house disagreements, opposition to these ruling solidified the union between white evangelicals and the pro-bible reading Republican Party.

In the early 1960s, while many American Christians were more concerned about civil rights than the Supreme Court's decisions on prayer and Bible reading, the white evangelical response to civil rights ranged from cautious support to staunch opposition. White evangelicals voiced far more concern with issues like prohibition, anti-communism, or prayer in schools than issues involving race. Most white evangelicals did nothing to assist the Civil Rights Movement.

This was not a surprise to black evangelicals given the white passivity during Reconstruction and the era of mass lynchings. Frustration over white inaction helped push African-American Christians further away from formal evangelical movements – and the Republican party, with whom white evangelicals were intertwined. This is what prompted the formation of the National Black Evangelical Association in 1963.[10]

Some evangelical leaders attempted to walk into the issue of racism rather than away from it.

  • Billy Graham initially allowed segregated seating in southern cities, but he ended the practice in 1953.[11] Graham was not a civil rights activist, but he did put his reputation on the line over segregation. He appeared with Martin Luther King Jr. at a New York City Revival in 1957, where King offered a prayer at the assembly. Mahalia Jackson performed there, beginning a tradition of African-American vocalist singing at Graham Crusades. Graham's moderate pro-civil rights stands earned him the ire of many fundamentalists; he even got him hate mail from the KKK.
  • At Christianity Today, a few editors wanted to enlist directly in the Civil Rights Movement. Howard Pugh (the apparent money behind Christianity Today) and Nelson Bell (Graham's father-in-law and editorial adviser) suppressed the coverage.
  • John Alexander at Wheaton College zealously supported of civil rights.
  • Ron Sider, who wrote a book called Rich Christians In An Age Of Hunger (1977), became a voice for the small but vocal white evangelical Left that emerged in the 60s.
  • Left-leaning evangelicals insisted that sin was built into social structures, not just individual actions; believers needed to take seriously how institutional racism, unjust economic structures, and militaristic institutions – all of which are made up of sinful individuals in need of salvation – were also in need of transformation and redemption.
As demographic and spiritual changes began sweeping evangelicalism after 1965,[12] white evangelicals increasingly aligned themselves even more closely with the Republican Party. Nixon had courted evangelicals and managed to get all but the staunches fundamentalist leaders to support him. Nixon had little interest in Christian devotion, but he projected a pious image in public, including holding Sunday church services at the White House.

Perhaps as an unintentional reflection of the divide that had grown in evangelicalism because of racial alignment with party politics, Graham’s ministry in the US increasingly drew only white middle-class people the more he became immersed in the Republican White House. His summer 1972 crusade in Cleveland Ohio, by then a majority-black city, drew an audience that was 99% White. Eventually, Graham realized that Nixon's virtuous pretensions had been a sham, and he took a step back from partisan politics.

The collapse of Nixon's presidency still left politically oriented evangelicals with some prominent issues on which to focus.

One was the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (proposed in 1971) which sought to guarantee women equality under the law. Many evangelicals saw it as an attack on traditional family and gender norms.

Another priority was the pro-life cause, though it took time for some evangelicals to join that movement. Carl Henry had spoken out as early as the 1960s, but many evangelicals had regarded the issue as a secondary one. The Southern Baptist convention in 1971 had even passed a resolution promoting the legality of abortion in certain cases. First Baptist Dallas Pastor W.A. Criswell argued that abortion should be permitted if necessary up to the moment of birth. The SBC equivocated about abortion for years following Roe v Wade,[13]but the NAE and Christianity Today registered immediate concern. During the 1976 election, Democrats started to abandon their traditional opposition to abortion. The GOP seized on the opportunity to endorse a Right to Life Amendment, and the rest is political history.[14]

In 1976, the news media and polling agencies began to realize that the born-again vote carried significant political clout. From 1976 forward, “Evangelical” increasingly meant “white religious Republican base,” though hardly anyone took the time to write that clarifying phrase.


The rise of the Moral Majority happened around this time for a number of reasons: school prayer, homosexual rights, gambling, pornography, to abortion and other concerns. However, Falwell and friends were also very interested in protecting Christian schools from the IRS.

What had the IRS done? Many private Christian schools, including Bob Jones University and Falwell's Lynchburg Christian Academy, had been founded as an educational option that avoided racial integration. In 1978, Jimmy Carter’s IRS declared that private schools must meet minimum minority enrollment standards or lose their tax-exempt privileges. The IRS dropped its threat, but the rift between black and white evangelicals widened even more politically. (Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, supported the demand for integration. White fundamentalists aligned with Republicans did not.)

Establishing the Moral Majority came with a price for Falwell, who caught flak from fundamentalist colleagues for partnering with evangelicals, Catholics, and the small number of Jews who supported the Moral Majority. But Falwell was convinced that the threat from secular humanism required cooperation.

The Reagan campaigns of the 80s united white neo-evangelicals and fundamentalists.[15] This political resurgence was aided by the Southern Baptists returning to their theologically traditional roots.
  • When Albert Mohler became president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he cleaned house. Within a few years, virtually the whole faculty at Southern, which had become increasingly modernist and liberal, had resigned or been removed.
  • In 2004, Russell Moore became dean of the School of Theology at Southern. Moore would go on to become president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in 2013.
  • Mohler and Moore both served on the Leadership Council of the Gospel Coalition, an evangelical website that includes conservative pastors from a range of denominations and ethnic backgrounds. Mohler was a prominent critic of parts of 2008’s “An Evangelical Manifesto.” It’s worth reading his response to see how evangelicalism intends to operate as a movement that encourages this kind of discussion.
Most Republican evangelicals embraced the political model of working with Presidents who respected Christianity even if they were not personally devout. That model worked for Eisenhower, Nixon (for a while, anyway) and Reagan.

After Reagan's reelection in 1984, the Moral Majority and other fundamentalist movements lost momentum. Perhaps Reagan’s popular terms brought political complacency? It didn’t help that Jerry Falwell Sr. visited the white supremacist bastion of South Africa in 1985 and returned advising Christians to invest in the country.[16]

As the political power of fundamentalism faded, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition (led by Republican insider Ralph Reed) and James Dobson's Family Research Council emerged as the new key evangelical political organizations.


Donald Trump's presidency is more reminiscent of the evangelical support of Nixon than Eisenhower, Reagan or the Bush terms. In 2016, Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted a picture of himself and his wife posing next to Trump in Trump's office –with a framed cover of Playboy featuring Trump hanging on the wall. Clearly, evangelicals were not looking for a president who necessarily lived their values. It was enough that he stated his support of them.[17]

Black Protestant churches seemed as committed to Hillary's candidacy as white evangelicals were to Trump's. [18] However, not all white evangelicals were excited about Trump's presidency. Evangelical leaders like Beth Moore, Albert Mohler, Russell Moore, John Piper, and Marvin Olasky expressed concern. Even The Christian Post – which changed its tune in late 2019 – intially expressed deep concern about a Trump Presidency.

This resistance resonated with black evangelicals, who reportedly supported Hillary Clinton at a rate of 88%. This did not stop some from expressing deep concerns about her. An open letter to Clinton signed by African- American clergy criticized her for ignoring issues of importance to black Christians, including abortion and the encroachment of the gay rights movement on Christian conscience. A.R. Bernard, a black Brooklyn pastor, joined Trump's Evangelical Advisory board, though he resigned in the wake of the comments Trump made about a white supremacist rally in 2017.

While Trump's Evangelical supporters were pleased with his movement in the pro-life direction on the abortion issue,[19] some of his actions furthered the rift already existing between black and white evangelicals.

His lack of swift and clear condemnation on racial issues and his language about immigrants tapped into memories of white evangelical passivity in the eras of lynching and civil rights. One black pastor from Washington wrote that evangelical Trump voters had,
“abandoned public solidarity with groups who considered Mr. Trump an existential threat to them. I'm speaking here of the many groups who expressed reservation regarding Mr. Trump's racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, isolationism, and nativism. People with those concerned come from a lot of groups in the country, including African American Christians, many themselves evangelicals.”
After the CT article calling for Trump’s impeachment, over 70 black pastors penned an open letter in support of CT. Their opening statement includes the following:
The late Billy Graham, CT’s founder, gave us a loud warning in an article he wrote for Parade Magazine in 1981, when he said: “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” This is what we’re seeing today in 21st century evangelicalism: a broken marriage between a radical faction of the local church and the extreme right-wing faction of the Republican Party.
You may not agree with them; for the sake of this post, simply note the sentiment being expressed.[20] Their response was matched (if not overwhelmed) by an equally strong denunciation of CT and affirmation of President Trump from the white evangelical right.

To critics, white evangelical voters finally threw off masks of civility in 2016. Robert Jeffress’s famous quote about President Trump probably summarizes why people feel this way:
“I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”
Evan Sayet's viral article went into much more detail:
Donald Trump is America ’s first wartime president in the Culture War… And what’s particularly delicious is that, like Patton standing over the battlefield as his tanks obliterated Rommel’s, he’s shouting, “You magnificent bastards, I read your book!” 
That is just the icing on the cake, but it’s wonderful to see that not only is Trump fighting, he’s defeating the Left using their own tactics. That book is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals… It is a book of such pure evil, that, just as the rest of us would dedicate our book to those we most love or those to whom we are most indebted, Alinsky dedicated his book to Lucifer… 
So, to my friends on the Left – and the #NeverTrumpers as well -- do I wish we lived in a time when our president could be “collegial” and “dignified” and “proper”? Of course I do. These aren’t those times… so, say anything you want about this president – I get it, he can be vulgar, he can be crude, he can be undignified at times. I don’t care. I can’t spare this man. He fights.
Michael Hamilton believes white evangelicalism now has a political quadrilateral:
  • Christian nationalism (the United States is a Christian nation, and its enemies are God’s enemies)
  • Christian tribalism ( a conservative version of identity politics with evangelicals as the priestly Levites in a modern Israel)
  • political moralism (politics should uphold Christian values)
  • anit-statism (expanding government programs are socialist or communist)



[1] Graham called communism “Satan's religion.”
[2] Because of this association with evangelicalism and Republicanism, we see yet another increase in the rift between black and white evangelicals. Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, who was a remarkably popular black Evangelical leader in the 1930s and 40s, had begun leading African-Americans away from the Republican Party and into the Democratic Party in the 1930s.

[3] Billy Graham had referred to the Cuban Missile Crisis as the “four horses of the Apocalypse preparing for action.”

[4] Today, “surveys demonstrate that traditional evangelicals are more likely than other Americans to approve of U.S. engagement in a preemptive war, support military action against terrorism, and condone the use of torture.” “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity,” Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Evangelicals.

[5] Read the Communist Manifesto. This is not an exaggeration.

[6] In 1957, Graham had Nixon speak at his New York City Crusade.

[7] Communism – or rather, the fear-mongering use of the label – drove another wedge between black and white evangelicals. Tom Skinner, an evangelical ex-gang leader from Harlem, began to promote ‘black power evangelicalism’: “On that cross Christ was bearing in his own body my sin, and he was proclaiming my liberation” – by which he meant slavery, hunger, poverty, racism and other “works of the devil.” Bob Jones called him a communist for promoting revolution. – Jemar Tisby, “Are Black Christians Evangelicals?” Evangelicals

[8] The 50s had seen the addition of the phrases “under God” into the pledge and “In God We Trust” on money to clarify that we were, indeed, not godless Communists. This shift in the 60s felt deeply unsettling.

[9] The Supreme Court ruling that New York had violated the First Amendment by reciting the Regents Prayer at the beginning of each school day,

[10] Fundamentalism wasn’t doing any better. Bob Jones Sr. and Jerry Falwell Sr. openly opposed desegregation. Other outspoken segregationist included W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church (of which Robert Jeffress is now pastor). Criswell defended segregation before the South Carolina legislature in 1956. However, he abandoned his segregationist views when he became SBC president in 1968.

[11] Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday both allowed segregation at their meetings.

[12] The center of world Christianity shifted to the global South. Immigrants from the south to the United States Since 1965 have been disproportionately Christian. Most powerful religious Trend caused by post 1965 immigration has been to make American Christianity including evangelicalism more ethnically diverse it begins with the overwhelmingly Christian background of mexican-americans. Christians are overrepresented among Korean, Vietnamese, Arab, and other immigrants to when compared to the percentage of Christians in their home country. Growing numbers are coming from sub-Saharan Africa, and many of those Africans are evangelicals are Pentecostals. Research suggests that about two-thirds of the post 1965 immigrants were Christians.

[13] In 1980, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution recommending an anti-abortion Constitutional Amendment, breaking with Jimmy Carter, a Georgia Baptist.

[14] GOP recruiter Morton Blackwell observed that white evangelicals were “the greatest tract of virgin timber on the political landscape.” – Michael Hamilton, Evangelicals

[15] This was also the era in which not participating in partisan politics remained a live option for many evangelicals, as it does today. It was hard for them to escape the public implications of their faith; endorsing candidates or a party was a big step beyond merely commenting on issues. Some of America's most flamboyant televangelist of the 80s, including Rex Humbard and Jimmy Swaggart, stayed out of the political fray. Since 1980, white evangelicals have been more likely than the average American to vote, but in every presidential election year there are still about 40% of white evangelicals who do not.

[16] He said he was opposed to apartheid, but he was more worried about a communist insurgency taking over the country if the U.S. dropped its support. William Bentley, the former head of the national black Evangelical Association, said this was predictable because “people who control the segregation process always say wait.”

[17] In 2011, 70% of evangelicals said immorality disqualified a politician from office. In 2016, it was down to 30% - an exact reversal of statistics in five years.

[18] Another example of the black/white evangelical voting gap: When Roy Moore (R) ran against Doug Jones (D) in 2017, 95% of black Christians voted for Jones; 80% of white evangelicals voted for Moore.

[19] Appointing pro-life judges was a huge deal to voters, and Trump has delivered.

[20] Hispanic evangelicals are almost evenly split along political lines. Note how President Trump kicked off his Evangelicals For Trump in a Hispanic church; note also the response from Hispanics who were not buying it.

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