Earlier this week I was sitting in a local diner talking about religion and politics (among other things) with a group of thirty-something evangelicals. As the conversation turned to the way American evangelicals have become too reliant upon politics to promote their message in the public sphere, I realized that I was getting old.
As an evangelical who came of age in the 1980s, I naturally thought about these questions in the context of the so-called culture wars. I know that many thoughtful Christians of my age and older have also been conditioned to think about evangelicalism and politics in this way. Some think evangelicals should use politics to promote their moral agenda. Others think that the evangelicals are too wed to politics. Either way, the paradigm remains strong.
As I listened to the conversation, I realized that my last two books–Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History? were shaped by my conviction that evangelicals were trying too hard to change the world through politics. In Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? I offered a history of religion and the American founding era that cut through the culture-war debates over this contentious topic. In Why Study History? I suggested that historical thinking offers a nice antidote to the culture war mentality that Christians and others have embraced.
But as we sipped milkshakes, the younger evangelicals at the table, some of whom (and I am guessing here) may not have been born when Falwell forged the Moral Majority or when the culture wars began, seemed to suggest that not all evangelicals of their generation thought about the relationship between Christian faith and politics in this way. (Or at least this is what I sensed from the conversation). They were fed up with the culture wars and wanted to think about a Christian witness in the world that transcended political differences.
As a critic of the way the Religious Right has used politics (and history) to gain cultural power, I was encouraged by the conversation. I was also encouraged by Michael Wear’s recent piece in The Atlantic on the changing face of Christian politics. People have been making Wear’s argument for several years now, but with the popularity of Pope Francis and his moral agenda for the church, it is a topic worth revisiting. Wear is a veteran of Barack Obama’s faith outreach initiatives. Here is a taste of his piece:
As George W. Bush’s approval ratings plummeted during his second term, many Christians who had been invested in the Religious Right movement began to reconsider their partisan posture in politics. In my conversations with Christian leaders and voters, I’ve found that there are two common motivating factors for this change. First, the political issues that draw Christian concern go beyond what the political system has suggested. Christian organizations have supported issues like prisoner rehabilitation, international development, immigrant services, and healthcare for literally centuries in this country. The legacy of Christian political activism in America spans not just the culture wars, but America’s founding, the abolition of slavery, and the advancement of civil rights. To Christian leaders, and many Christians themselves, it was incomprehensible that they came to occupy such a small space of our political discourse. How could it be that they could elect a nation’s president, but lose its politics?
Ben Toll says
I, too, enjoyed the article. I would be one of the younger Evangelicals you were talking with (turning 30 this year). As a political scientist (dissertating) studying American politics who is teaching a Sunday school class this semester on Christianity and politics we keep coming back to the theme of how our scriptural interpretations of politics are dependent on our context, theology, and also what verses we take as being informative for our view of politics. We will only spend two weeks specifically looking at American interpretations, but I will be using your book for my prep. I enjoy the blog, even as a non-historian!
Tom Van Dyke says
Check your anecdotage, John.
At the other end of the political spectrum, nearly eight-in-ten white evangelical Protestants voted for Romney (79%), compared with 20% who backed Obama. Romney received as much support from evangelical voters as George W. Bush did in 2004 (79%) and more support from evangelicals than McCain did in 2008 (73%).