Private Activism, Public Indifference: Understanding White Evangelical Politics


Unless I’ve missed something, we’re still waiting to see data on white evangelicals’ political opinions under the new administration. Foxnews and the Washington Post usually include religion in their polls; hopefully they’ll be in the field soon. It’s not too presumptuous to hazard a guess that these polls will show high favorability numbers for Trump among white evangelicals, robust support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, and majority support for the travel ban. I hope I’m wrong on every count.

To make sense of this kind of white evangelical politics, we have to understand the radical distinction many white evangelicals make between private and public action. There are lots of ways to try to get at this. Historians have certainly done so. Axel Schäfer’s work on evangelicals and the state is probably particularly relevant. But what follows is more of a think piece, a meditation based on my own experience in evangelical circles. We’ll save the historiography and data for another time.

The distinction between private and public is something we’re all familiar with on some level. You might support the military, but you probably don’t want private citizens to claim military powers for themselves. You probably want a police force in your community, but you don’t want every random person claiming police powers for themselves. We grudgingly accept the need for taxes of some kind, but ordinary citizens can’t call themselves tax collectors and come to our door demanding money.

Despite the familiarity of these public and private roles, people outside white evangelical communities are probably not aware of how important this distinction is in white evangelicalism. And people within white evangelicalism may be so familiar with it that it’s no longer remarkable. Misunderstood from without, and commonsense from within, the white evangelical distinction between private and public action is a crucial context for understanding the anti-Christian politics of the white evangelical mainstream.

The examples of public/private distinctions above are all cases in which the public delegates powers to the government that would be impractical or immoral for individual citizens to exercise. But in white evangelicalism, the distinction often works in the opposite direction: individuals and private institutions need to take upon themselves responsibilities that ought not be in the sphere of government.

Let’s be specific about what this means:

It’s the church’s job to deal with poverty, not the government.

It’s the church’s job to care for the sick, not the government.

It’s the church’s job to confront racism, not the government.

It’s the church’s job to welcome refugees, not the government.

Call it a politics of church supremacy. That this principle is not consistently applied (it apparently is the government’s job to protect the unborn, enforce certain sexual ethics, and provide public monies for private charities) does not mean it is not sincerely believed when it is deployed. As Schäfer has shown, white evangelicals’ posture toward the state is more about making the state work for them than it is consistently anti-statist. This is not unusual. I don’t know if any of us are consistent in our political principles.

In some white evangelical communities, this politics of church supremacy makes liberal policy appear not just misguided, but morally deviant. The state is taking upon itself powers that ought to reside in the church. When the government increases food stamps, it’s not just giving a handout, as the rhetoric of the secular conservative would indicate. It is robbing the church of the opportunity to show Christian love to needy people.

The politics of church supremacy means that in white evangelical circles discussions about poverty or health care or refugees often transform with remarkable speed into discussions about church and state. The needy people who are ostensibly the subject of conversation recede to the background. Suddenly the actual topic at hand is not what is best for needy people, but what the church ought to be doing. After all, isn’t it axiomatic that what is best for the church is best for needy people?

This is not just excuse-making. Indeed it is probable that the strong activist streak in evangelicalism is intimately connected to this hostility toward public action. White evangelicals really do spend an enormous amount of time, money, and energy helping needy people. They believe it’s their responsibility. They’re right to think so. But their sense of radical disjuncture between public and private is devastating to the formation of a broader Christian social ethic in the public sphere.

The upshot of all this is that most white evangelicals end up supporting public policy that makes their private charity more necessary. They don’t think about it in these terms, but this is what it amounts to. Repeal Obamacare, and watch as the church has an amazing opportunity to step up and show love to hurting people. From the inside, this looks like genuine Christian concern. From the outside, obvious questions arise: does the church have a plan to systematically replace the billions of dollars for health care poor people would lose if the law is repealed? Does the church have a plan to prevent the tens of thousands of deaths that are likely to occur? The questions are damning.

The politics of church supremacy has paved the way for white evangelicals to support a moral anti-Christ. Even as white evangelicals demand much of themselves in their private lives, they have transformed politics, a medium of the public sphere, into a zone where anything goes and Christian doctrine plays no meaningful role. Until the past year, many of us did not know, or were unwilling to believe, just how selfish and destructive this politics had become. Now we know.

Being a Christian in this time and place requires us to wrestle with troubling questions. Is evangelicalism a force for good in society? For years, I looked around at all the energetic activism in evangelical communities and I comforted myself. I answered the question affirmatively. But to be a reflective Christian in this era—as so many Christians defend and support the indefensible and the anti-Christian—is to let go of certainty and to humble ourselves before all those who criticize us. It is to say to the doubters and the skeptics: you have been right. It is to say to those who do not believe: you have understood Jesus better than I. Let us ask this question not as an academic abstraction, but as an existential now. Is evangelicalism a force for good in society, right here, right now? I no longer know how to answer this question.

2 thoughts on “Private Activism, Public Indifference: Understanding White Evangelical Politics

  1. *shakes head* in slight bewilderment.

    I don’t get it, but I’m not really of that world.

    If what I remember of history is correct, the government took on poverty during the Great Depression, which overwhelmed everyone, including churches; health care because it got beyond the ability of people to pay even with insurance (I remember being able to pay for doctor visits out of pocket, and I didn’t have to show a card, either); racism (in cooperation with churches!) because it was against the spirit of the country (not to mention the example of Nazi Germany, which used to be fresh in American minds).

    To this outsider, it all sounds like the argument that there shouldn’t be public schools because it is the church’s job to educate. Which I might accept for the church’s doctrine for children of members or converts, but not for science or the liberal arts. I don’t think government programs prevent churches from showing love, but I think something else is going on.

    I think I need another cup of coffee.


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