The following article was originally published in the “February 2016 Baptist Studies Bulletin.”
At what point does a religious group become captive to a dominant culture? When does a given expression of Christianity become so identified with a particular political ideology that it no longer reflects the Christ of the Gospels?
From the politically-driven Council of Nicea in 325 B.C., to the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformers, and the Congregational and Anglican theocracies in the American colonies, too many Christian leaders succumbed to the great temptation of allying with dominant political structures in order to force religion upon the masses through fear, intimidation and death threats.
In the past four centuries some Christian groups, Baptists included, rose above the dominant culture. To the horror of established Christendom, early Baptists of the 17th and 18th centuries rejected coerced religion and demanded equal freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all, their commitment to human freedom leading to the establishment of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the early 19th century many Baptists were among Christians of the American North who fostered an ascendant and transformative abolition movement against slavery. At the same time, although many white Baptists of the South prior to 1800 were opposed to slavery, in the centuries following the region’s white Baptists turned away from their gospel convictions of freedom and embraced the dominate southern cultural motif of human enslavement, racial apartheid and hatred. Rescuing Baptists from their cultural captivity fell to the lot of heroic African American Baptists of the Civil Rights era.
Within this historical narrative arose a group of Christians known, at various times, as “evangelicals.”
Although historians of American Christianity sometimes bestow “evangelical” terminology upon 18th century dissenting Baptists and Presbyterians, this newly-coined word was typically associated with religious revivals and rarely used by early Baptists. John Leland, the greatest Baptist evangelist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and alternately living in the South and North, in his massive Writings invoked “evangelical” only five times, in each instance as another word for “gospel.”
Usage of the term peaked in the 1840s in conjunction with abolitionism, steadily declining thereafter. Bottoming out around the turn of the 20th century, evangelical remained a little used term, albeit with a small bump following the 1942 formation of the white male, theologically fundamentalist, politically conservative National Association of Evangelicals. The NAE positioned evangelical as culturally accommodative. Organization co-founder Carl Henry in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) called upon fundamentalists (evangelicals) to integrate the Bible into the dominant “political, economic, sociological, and educational realms, local and international.” Led by Billy Graham, evangelicals allied with anti-communist politicians and supported Joseph McCarthy in suppressing Americans’ freedom of conscience in witch hunts against alleged communist sympathizers. Francis Schaeffer in the 1960s emerged as a leading thinker of the movement, pulling evangelicals even further to the right by positing evangelicalism in a “culture war” against secular liberalism.
Even so, it fell to a self-professed, progressive evangelical U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, to truly galvanize the modern evangelical movement. Carter’s presidency in the late 1970s thrust “evangelical” into the public discourse to an extent not seen since the progressive labor movement of the first decade of the century. A long-time then-Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, Carter and other progressives (a small bloc of evangelicals) focused their faith on human equality, racial justice, poverty and other New Testament gospel themes. Despising Carter’s liberalism, the evangelical majority gelled into the Religious Right, a religious arm of the Republican Party. “I sometimes argue that Jimmy Carter is the last progressive evangelical,” notes Randall Balmer, scholar of modern evangelicalism. Since Carter’s presidency, American evangelicals in each presidential election have overwhelmingly voted for Republican candidates.
American evangelicalism, a largely white, Republican club, remains widely viewed as a religious movement primarily concerned with politics and rarely reflecting Jesus of the Gospels. John Green, professor of politics and religion at the University of Akron, says that while evangelical traditionally was “a religious word,” since Ronald Reagan (who defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1980) it has “become very strongly associated with Republican and conservative politics.” Greg Smith, Pew Research Center associate director of research, sums up the statistical relationship between evangelicals and politics this way: “White evangelical protestants are some of the most reliably conservative and Republican voters in the electorate.” David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, notes that “there’s a lot of perceptions that the term evangelicals means ‘Christians who vote Republican.’”
Among self-proclaimed evangelicals, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, posits opposition to political liberalism as evangelical identity. Roger Olson, evangelical professor of theology at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, notes the shifting of evangelicalism since 1980 toward fundamentalism, while excluding progressives. He concedes that “evangelical has come to be closely associated in the popular mind with an ultra-conservative approach to Christianity, one that is harshly judgmental, narrow-minded, inseparably related to conservative politics and backward-looking rather than progressive,” and “synonymous with the Religious Right in many people’s minds.” Echoing Olson, moderate Baptist John Pierce, executive editor of Baptists Today, recently observed that “American Evangelicalism” is “a political movement that simply baptizes hard-right, secular political ideology in some religious varnish.”
Evangelical, of course, remains a more nuanced term than public perceptions often indicate. For example, many African American Christians are technically progressive evangelicals (though few refer to themselves as evangelicals) if one utilizes David Bebbington’s, professor of history at Scotland’s University of Stirling, non-political, Jesus-focused definition of the term. The problem, however, is that most evangelicals are privileged white Christians who project conservative, Republican politics more than Jesus.
Although touting Bebbington’s definition of evangelical, the National Association of Evangelicals focuses primarily on politics, as noted in a 2004 NAE document entitled, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” The opening words of the “Our Commitment” section reads: “We commit ourselves to support Christians who engage in political and social action in a manner consistent with biblical teachings.” While trumpeted as politically inclusive, the “biblical teachings” advocated by the NAE, apart from “creation care,” echo the conservative political platform of the Republican Party. A wide range of cultural issues are discussed, yet in a politically-conservative context. Blurring the lines between church and state, the document insists that government should legislate and fund conservative biblical teachings that limit full human rights, equality, justice and freedom to certain persons only, and in certain ways.
Richard Cizik, vice-president of the NAE, however, was not among the politically-correct. When Cizik in a 2008 interview noted his openness to marriage equality for homosexuals, the NAE immediately fired him. Cizik is now of the opinion that evangelicalism has “become so subservient to an ideology and to a political party that it needs, as I say, to be born again.”
The NAE is not alone. Other conservative, Republican-dominated evangelical organizations allied with the NEA include Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade (CRU), InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the Evangelical Theological Society. While sometimes advocating for nonpartisan policies like immigration reform, a stance rejected by many Republican politicians, only about 20% of evangelicals will ever vote Democratic.
Are today’s American evangelicals captive to conservative political culture? Largely so, without question. Can one be an evangelical apart from this political alliance? Certainly, although few in fact are, and Jimmy Carter may be the last.