The Politics of Evangelical Identity

bean

A useful book to read alongside FitzGerald.

I finally finished my leisurely read through Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals. First, let’s hear from a couple more substantial voices than my own. At the “Year of the Evangelicals” conference at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics last month, Randall Balmer had nothing good to say about Fitzgerald’s book. Here he is in the Christian Century:

One would think that the decision on the part of a distinguished author such as Frances FitzGerald to take on the sweep of evangelicalism in America would be cause for celebration. Fitz­Gerald wrote an acclaimed history of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, and a lively book about American visions of community, Cities on a Hill. But this hefty book’s coverage of a broad and internally diverse movement is curiously pinched and narrow—and not merely because the author elects to omit the rich tradition of African-American evangelicalism.

The Evangelicals suffers from the common disease of presentism: the author takes the current political manifestations of evangelicalism as the essential clue to its historical identity. Fitz­Gerald dispatches with two centuries of evangelical history—everything up to the time of the Scopes Trial of 1925—by page 142. Her approach also betrays a bias for the Reformed or Calvinist strain of evangelicalism, with its emphasis on theological orthodoxy, as opposed to the Wesleyan-holiness strain and its focus on personal and social reform. (Donald Dayton’s indispensable account of the latter tradition, Discovering an Evangeli­cal Heritage, which would have provided some balance, appears nowhere in her extensive bibliography.) The effect is somewhat akin to viewing a landscape with one eye closed. Yes, the other eye makes adjustments, but the depth and texture of the panorama is lost.

Next, here’s Barry Hankins, Professor of History at Baylor:

It seems to be part of FitzGerald’s subtle thesis that the Christian Right transformed evangelicalism from a religious to a political movement—and that this was not a good thing. There is something to this, but we need to keep in mind, as she acknowledges, that even at its height only about 20 percent of evangelicals identified with the Christian Right. When evangelicals think and talk about politics, and especially when they vote, the vast majority sound and act like the Christian Right, from which they take their political cues.

But I’ve always maintained that the typical evangelical isn’t all that political. Rather, the important things for most evangelicals are: (1) living godly lives; (2) raising their children to be committed, evangelical Christians; (3) being active in their local churches; and (4) evangelizing their neighbors. They talk about issues like abortion and gay marriage in Sunday school, and on Election Day about 75 percent to 80 percent of them dutifully vote Republican, even if a pagan like Donald Trump is at the head of the ticket. They may even put a sign in their yard for the Republican congressman in their district. But the vast majority of evangelicals don’t march in the street, write letters to their congressmen and senators, run for the local school board, or attend Christian Right rallies. They’re too busy being Christians, so they leave that to the Falwells, Roberstons, and Dobsons of the world.

This is where FitzGerald’s book falls down a bit. In covering the Christian Right so thoroughly, The Evangelicals perpetuates the myth that evangelicalism and the Christian Right became synonymous. In part, FitzGerald seems to want to show that this was the case and that it was an unfortunate aberration, given the nearly three centuries of rich and robust evangelicalism that predated the Christian Right. On the other hand, however, part of the reason we need good history is to show that perceptions, especially those perpetuated by the media, need correction—that there’s more to a movement than its most visible, loud, and sometimes outrageous public figures.

I have similar concerns. I think it’s hard for those outside the evangelical orbit to imagine just how unimportant the “Christian” Right is to most ordinary evangelicals. If you read FitzGerald exceptionally closely, you might get some hint of this, but it’s overwhelmed by the fact that she spends 300 pages dwelling on the schemes and misadventures of a small group of evangelical political elites.

As I read the second half of the book, my thoughts kept returning to Lydia Bean’s 2014 book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity. More so than FitzGerald, Bean is attuned to the basic contradiction at the heart of evangelical political engagement: how does a movement that from the outside seems to be a political juggernaut marching in lockstep, seem from the inside so fractious and apolitical?

In the introduction to her comparative study of American and Canadian evangelical churches, Bean writes:

Evangelical congregations rarely engage in collective demonstrations and marches like Catholic parishes, sponsor discussions on political issues like mainline churches, or open their doors to candidates like Black Protestant churches. In reality, the worlds of local evangelical congregations are far less overtly political than the worlds of Christian Right elites.

Yet the Christian Right is still winning the framing game. How do evangelical churches reinforce such a high level of political homogeneity? I find that evangelical churches have become politicized in more subtle ways that reflect the influence of the Christian Right. Even though evangelicalism is not defined by a shared, coherent worldview, evangelical congregations still foster thin coherence between religious identity and partisanship. Political influence does not work through explicit persuasion or deliberation about political subjects, but by defining evangelical identity in ways that are implicitly linked to partisanship. Ironically, these partisan cues have greater moral power because they are distanced from the dirty business of “politics.” Political conservatism takes on a sacred quality because it is woven into the fabric of everyday religious life.

Bean’s comparative approach allows her to explore what is distinctive about American congregations. She finds that Canadian evangelical churches do not foster the same implicit link between partisanship and religious identity. In the United States, narratives of Christian nationalism forge connections between evangelical identity and political conservatism. In Canada, such narratives are absent.

The implicit messages of words like “us” and “we” and “they” and “them” conflate political and theological liberals as outsiders to the evangelical community. These implicitly political environments are usually established by lay leaders more than the ordained clergy. Narratives of national decline—“they took God out of the schools”—don’t have to mention any names or political parties for people to know who to vote for in the next election.

To me, this is all much more interesting—and more complicated—than the elite-driven picture FitzGerald has given us.

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