Northern Evangelicalism’s Long Alliance with the GOP

wheaton record 1964

The Wheaton College student newspaper reports on the results of the campus’s mock presidential election, November 5, 1964.

The popular understanding of the history of evangelical political mobilization is still rooted in the 1970s and 1980s and the movement of apolitical or Democratic southern evangelicals toward the Republican Party. But it’s important to understand that as a southern story, not a national one. The nerve centers of northern evangelicalism had long been overwhelmingly Republican.

Wheaton College was of course among the most influential evangelical centers of higher education (it counted Billy Graham among its alumni). As the snapshot above shows, the future leaders of evangelicalism had a habit of voting overwhelmingly Republican, even in years when to do so was radically out of step with the rest of the country (1948, 1964).

Wheaton’s mock election results in 1964 were almost exactly the inverse of the national returns. While Johnson won over 60% of the vote in a historic landslide, over 60% of Wheaton students gave their mock votes to Goldwater (remember, this was before the 26th amendment lowered the age of the franchise to 18).

Wheaton students’ overwhelming support for Goldwater in the fall of 1964 did not come without controversy. Wheaton students holding a pro-Goldwater rally encountered an interracial counter-demonstration of black kids and a few Wheaton students.

wheaton record 1964 protest

Wheaton student Dan Kuhn described what happened next:

Singing the “Freedom Song” and “Jesus Loves Me,” the teen-age demonstrators moved unresistingly in an extended oval configuration. Many noted their songs—“God loves us, why don’t you, Mr. Goldwater,” or “Wheaton Christians — do you really care,” or “You preach to us, you pray for us, you say you love us, but you vote for Mr. Goldwater” — many resented them and many fought back—kicking, pushing, and jeering the Negro youths…

Some background here: Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you read the speech he gave in the Senate explaining his vote, and then read the speeches of segregationists such as Stennis, you’ll very find little difference.  The old line that Goldwater wasn’t personally prejudiced may be true, but it’s also irrelevant. His constitutional principles didn’t allow him to support human rights for black people.  That’s why the counter-demonstrators were associating a vote with Goldwater with a lack of care for fellow human beings. Kuhn went on to reflect on the stakes involved in Wheaton students’ support for a political platform so oppressive to black people:

The problem confronts us suddenly at Wheaton when we realize with embarrassment that these people to whom we talk about Christianity can see nothing authentic about our claim to be committed to Jesus Christ in the way we live…

A pro-Goldwater student attended the rally and had a different take:

Saturday’s rally provided expression for many people. Some was constructive and pertinent, some was not. Several young Negroes in a revolving picket were out of place…

Someone told them that Barry Goldwater voted against them and thus hates them. Because of this they return their hate to him and his supporters. I offer that this sort of misunderstanding and action engenders new hatred for which there is no room in this situation.

Of equal importance is the offense that was brought against the Christian supporters of Mr. Goldwater. The demonstration was a slap in the face of progress for the Christian in understanding his fellow. I was told that by supporting Barry Goldwater I took my place among the prejudiced. This is not true. The Negro and the white are my fellow, but this demonstration hampers our understanding of one another.

In this tangled mixture of defensiveness and resentment, the student actively supporting systemic racism claimed the right to be offended! Here you can see the toxicity of Christian colorblindness. Black and white people are his “fellows” and they must seek “understanding” with each other, but it is unreasonable and offensive to judge white people on the basis of their actions.

He didn’t vote for Goldwater because he supports racism, but because he supports conservatism. Sound familiar? Then, as now, if he had taken the time to understand perspectives other than his own, he might have realized that this was only a roundabout way of saying that the rights and safety of others are expendable in pursuit of one’s ideological  goals.

Trump at Liberty University

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President Trump gave the commencement address at Liberty University today. It’s a win-win for Trump and Liberty’s President, Jerry Falwell, Jr. Trump gets to cloak his barbarism with the veneer of the sacred while placating the feelings of a key constituency. And Falwell gets what every court evangelical wants—credulous press coverage describing his supposed influence:

Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University president and evangelical icon, endorsed Trump in January 2016, calling him “a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”

Falwell’s backing boosted Trump’s previously sparse evangelical bona fides and was particularly significant because many political observers had assumed that Falwell would support Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who had launched his campaign at Liberty 10 months earlier.

Falwell is many things; an evangelical icon he certainly is not. Talk to ordinary evangelicals and you’ll find that many have no idea who he is. A sizable number of evangelicals who do know who he is believe he’s a ridiculous figure. And some smaller number have both heard of him and like him, but do not take their cues from him.

Some other Christian Right leaders over the years have at least been able to make credible claims of speaking for a constituency. After all, they had real organizations with real activists at their command (however inflated the numbers may have been) .

Falwell’s case is different. His trick is to insert himself into the space between politicians, journalists, and ordinary voters, and claim to speak for a vast group of people. Then, when a constituency that was going to vote for Trump anyway duly does so, Falwell can preen as a kingmaker. Politicians want to court their constituencies; journalists want convenient quotes and narratives; and Falwell wants to be important. Everybody’s happy. But let’s not pretend these narratives of influence accurately describe evangelicalism, or evangelical political power.

There’s another important distinction to make. Trump was at Liberty this morning precisely because Liberty is such an unusual evangelical college. In contrast to most evangelical institutions of higher education, Liberty has always been overtly political. Indeed, its leaders have rarely bothered to hide the fact that Republican politics is more important to them than Christianity.

That’s part of what makes narratives like, “Trump goes to Liberty and reaches out evangelicals” somewhat ironic. Many evangelical institutions want nothing to do with Liberty University. It’s a culture-warring, influence-peddling debasement of Christianity. It’s an affront to many evangelical colleges that sincerely attempt to construct environments of critical thinking and Christian reflection. At those institutions, Trump might not be so welcome.

The “Court Evangelicals”

John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College, has a new name for the circle of Christian Right sycophants around President Trump: “court evangelicals.” Fea explains:

Not all evangelicals who voted for Trump are what I am describing as “court evangelicals.”  I am going to use this phrase from now on to describe Trump’s inner circle of evangelicals who think it is a good idea for ministers to endorse candidates from the pulpit, have bowed a knee to the political power of the presidency, think Trump is a “baby Christian,” believe evangelicals have found their “dream president” in Trump, and regularly show up at the White House whenever Trump wants to say something about religion.  The court evangelicals sacrifice their prophetic voice to political influence.  The court evangelicals have put their faith in a political strongman who promises to alleviate their fears and protect them from the forces of secularization.

This is genius. It’s a simple and cutting phrase that accurately describes these so-called leaders. While they mouth spiritual platitudes from time to time, they behave like hangers-on to royalty.

They accept and endorse all manner of evil, from constant lying to sexual assault to racism, because to speak as Christians on these matters would cost them their position in the court of their ruler. I wish I were exaggerating. As Fea noted this morning, new reporting in the Chronicle of Higher Education has dug up Falwell’s reaction to the lies and racism Trump used to enter the political stage several years ago:

Throughout their relationship, Mr. Falwell has praised Donald Trump for speaking fearlessly, even when others would say he was speaking falsely. The “birther” issue, Mr. Falwell said, was one such profile in courage.

“He was brave enough to say something that was so politically incorrect,” Mr. Falwell said. “I had no idea where Obama was born or if he had a birth certificate; I didn’t have an opinion on that. But just the fact that he was bold enough to challenge Obama on something like that, because you didn’t see the press challenging Obama much. And so that impressed me that he was bold enough to do it.”

It’s not just that Falwell fails to speak as a Christian in this instance. His perspective is openly barbaric. A vicious lie impressed Falwell because of its sheer audacity. Breaking out of the bounds of conventionally accepted speech was more important than truth itself.

It’s easy to forget, but Falwell was defending Trump’s anti-Christian beliefs years before his run for the presidency. In 2012 Falwell invited Trump to speak at a Liberty University convocation. It went like this:

Speaking to 10,000 students at the convocation, the New York financier and real estate mogul discussed the nation’s ills – high debt, unemployment, dependence on foreign goods, and the oil crisis — and the lack of leadership in the White House to address these ever-growing concerns.

“The world is laughing at us,” Trump told the students. “We just seem to have lost our edge, and now we’re in a position that unless things take place and take place fast, we are going to be, for many, many years to come, in serious trouble to the point that I don’t know we can really come back.”

He then encouraged students to “get even.”

“I always say don’t let people take advantage — this goes for a country, too, by the way — don’t let people take advantage. Get even,” Trump said. “And, you know, if nothing else, others will see that and they’re going to say: ‘You know, I’m going to let Jim Smith or Sarah Malone, I’m going to let them alone because they’re tough customers.”

The comments sparked an outcry from critics, who said Trump was inappropriate to preach his gospel of “get even” at a place that reveres Christian values.

Falwell said Trump’s comments were not out of line.

“The Associated Press quoted where Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ But Jesus also ran the moneychangers out of the temple in anger with a whip – and so there is a time to be tough, there’s a time to look out for yourself and for your family and for your country and to defend yourself – and I don’t think that’s contrary to what Jesus taught at all.”

Trump hasn’t changed, and neither have the court evangelicals. Is there anything they wouldn’t do for power? And is there any amount of oppression that ordinary white evangelicals would not support, if they felt safer by it?

I still believe—praise God!—in the reality of the risen Christ. But we, his followers, are the strongest evidence against him.

Injustice Department Update

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Jeff Sessions is busy:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors this week to seek the maximum punishment for drug offenses, in one of the clearest breaks yet from the policies of the Justice Department under the Obama administration.

The move is an abrupt departure from policy made by President Barack Obama’s Attorney General, to reduce the number of people convicted of certain lower-level drug crimes being given long jail terms.

The change, “affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency,” Sessions said, in a memo to federal prosecutors written May 10 and made public Friday.

At a moment of bipartisan movement in many states for sentencing reform and wide agreement among experts that mass incarceration is counterproductive, Sessions is a true believer in old-fashioned tough on crime policies. Though, as his self-abasement in service of Trump demonstrates, he’s not actually against crime in general!

If Sessions weren’t impervious to evidence, he might bother to read the best scholarship on the causes and effects of mass incarceration. Aggressive prosecutors are already a key problem, and with this order Sessions wants them to be more aggressive. As John Pfaff said this morning:

By all accounts, Jeff Sessions is an amiable guy, a nice colleague. So was John Stennis.

Now Is A Good Time to Call Your Represenative

lol gop

Ideological extremism is so fun! We don’t have to worry about the fate of individual humans at all! Ha ha!

Republicans are again trying to strip insurance from tens of millions of people, and this time they might get the votes they need to pass the bill in the House. If you have a Republican representative, it’s a good time to call.

One Republican Congressman effectively summed up the stakes:

Representative Tom Rooney, Republican of Florida, said he was “leaning yes” on the repeal bill, but agonizing over how to explain his vote to constituents.

“I have a lot of people who call my office on a daily basis who are extremely angry,” he said. “It’s not just because I’m a Republican, but because they are sincerely scared.”

Many people with pre-existing conditions fear that they may lose coverage and “are going to die because of a vote we might be taking,” Mr. Rooney said.

Their fears are entirely justified. It’s why everyone from the AARP to the American Medical Association opposes the bill.

Health care is complicated. Obamacare is flawed. Improving the health care system is hard. But knowing where to stand on the Republican replacement bill is not difficult. If the bill became law, wealthy and healthy people would be better off, while poor and sick people would be worse off.

These facts alone make it impossible for Christians to support the bill. Christians are not willing to sacrifice the lives of human beings in pursuit of a utopian vision of the ideal society. The House Freedom Caucus apparently is willing to do so. Christians do not support this kind of cruelty under any circumstances. Call your Republican member of Congress!

When Ignorance Is Irrevocable

jackson

Andrew Jackson: White supremacist, ethnic cleanser, time-traveler.

When people who lack knowledge consider a question they’ve never thought of before, they ask, “I wonder how other people have answered this question?”

When fools consider a question they’ve never thought of before, they ask, “Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?”

Our President is in the latter group. He generalizes his own ignorance, attributing it to humanity. So because the President hadn’t bothered to do a google search or read a book, “nobody” knew how complicated health care was. Same for North Korea. And because the President has never thought much about the Civil War, no one else has either:

TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

This aggressively ignorant posture is funny. Unfortunately, it’s also deadly serious. It has become a defining feature of this presidency. The problem is not that Trump lacks knowledge. We all do. People who are wise can gain knowledge. But Trump possesses that special brand of foolishness that makes it difficult or impossible to know things.

Trump’s narcissistic ignorance is so encompassing that he appears unable to imagine what he doesn’t know, and unable to get up to speed even when it would obviously be in his interest to do so. For instance, yesterday, in an interview with John Dickerson, we learned that Trump still doesn’t know what’s in his health care bill. That is…astonishing.

Most Presidents try to situate their actions in a broader context of historic presidential behavior. If they can claim the mantle of one of the great presidents, all the better. President Obama’s repeated allusions to Lincoln were along this line. Self-serving, sure, but done with full self-awareness and purpose. Trump has obviously received the message that he is supposed to be a Jacksonian figure, but his ham-handed efforts to invoke Jackson’s legacy could not be more different from Obama’s thoughtful appeals to history.

Interviewers, ask Trump what he thinks about the Indian Removal Act, or Jackson’s banking policy, or really anything about Jackson at all. The answers are likely to entertain. We can all laugh and forget for a moment the extraordinary dangers of having a biblical fool as president.

In Praise of Conscientious Conservatives

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George Will, the dean of the conservative commentariat. Now a man without a party.

There are still conservative writers out there who have kept their integrity in this dark political era. This group is not as large as we might wish, but we should promote their work and appreciate the stand they are taking even if we often disagree with their other opinions. It will be a bleak future for American democracy if the poles of political debate range from racist/incompetent populism to technocratic liberalism to leftism. There  must be a place for thoughtful conservatism. Do you believe in the value of reasoned debate and the vigorous airing of dissenting opinions? Then support conservatives of integrity.

Here’s a roundup of some of their recent work.

Wheaton grad and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson:

Republicans got an administration that is morally small. Trump’s proposed budget would require massive cuts in disease research, global development and agricultural programs — just as a famine gathers a hideous strength. The proposed budget practices random acts of gratuitous cruelty.

This is a pretty bad combination: empty, easily distracted, vindictive, shallow, impatient, incompetent and morally small. This is not the profile of a governing party…

It is now dawning on Republicans what they have done to themselves. They thought they could somehow get away with Trump. That he could be contained. That the adults could provide guidance. That the economy might come to the rescue. That the damage could be limited.

Instead, they are seeing a downward spiral of incompetence and public contempt — a collapse that is yet to reach a floor. A presidency is failing. A party unable to govern is becoming unfit to govern.

Another former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, on the healthcare debacle:

I take no pride or pleasure in saying “I told you so.” We’ve all been wrong about enough things to teach us humility about our rare bursts of foresight. What I would urge is that those conservatives and Republicans who were wrong about the evolution of this debate please consider why they were wrong: Consider the destructive effect of ideological conformity, of ignorance of the experience of comparable countries, and of a conservative political culture that incentivizes intransigence, radicalism, and anger over prudence, moderation, and compassion.

Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol:

Consider the last week alone: The Republican president continues to speak out with no recognition of the normal proprieties of the presidential office, no appreciation for the dignity of the nation he represents, and no acknowledgment that he should be constrained by the truth. Meanwhile, the president appoints his daughter a White House adviser, and empowers her husband to be involved in delicate matters of foreign policy. Nepotism is a fact of life, but it would be foolish to deny that unabashed nepotism is evidence of progress in degeneracy.

Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin:

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the flurry of unforced errors. President Trump has little relevant experience, zero curiosity in policy and a rotten temperament that suggests he is divorced from reality. His staff is a mix of ideological extremists and party hacks, none with White House experience. His 30-something daughter and son-in-law have no public experience, either. How did you think this was going to work?

And the man everyone on both sides loves to hate, David Brooks, on the failed health care bill:

I opposed Obamacare. I like health savings accounts, tax credits and competitive health care markets to drive down costs. But these free-market reforms have to be funded in a way to serve the least among us, not the most. This House Republican plan would increase suffering, morbidity and death among the middle class and poor in order to provide tax cuts to the rich…

The core Republican problem is this: The Republicans can’t run policy-making from the White House because they have a marketing guy in charge of the factory. But they can’t run policy from Capitol Hill because it’s visionless and internally divided. So the Republicans have the politics driving the substance, not the other way around. The new elite is worse than the old elite — and certainly more vapid.

These conservatives have kept their integrity. They insist that incompetence and corruption and cruelty are bad. As obvious as that ought to be, in our time these are controversial opinions. By airing them, these writers risk losing money, influence, and connections in the world of Republican politics. They are willing to pay a price for their integrity. May their ranks grow.

Republican-Voting Christians Need To Speak Up Now

lol gop

“People will die, but the rich will be so much richer! Ha ha!”

If you’re a Christian who votes Republican, your voice is desperately needed now. Call your Republican member of congress and tell them you oppose the GOP health care bill because it fails to provide for the poor and the sick. If you’re a Christian, these principles are more important to you than limited government.

The Republicans are trying to pass a health care bill that oppresses the poor and sick so that rich people can have more money. The Congressional Budget Office estimates 24 million people would lose health insurance coverage. The best estimates we have indicate that this would cause thousands of preventable deaths every year.

I’ve heard from Trump-supporting Christians who have been offended by my words during and after the election. They didn’t want to be lumped in with the people supporting hatred, racism, and oppression. This is an opportunity for those Christians to demonstrate their sincerity. Do they oppose this cruel legislation? Or do they put party politics above human decency?

Sincerity, good intentions, or ignorance do not absolve these Christians from responsibility. If they think this bill falls under the rubric of “complicated partisan politics” and so they can’t speak against it, they’re supporting oppression. Even if they sincerely believe the lies of the Republican donor class, they’re still supporting oppression. No one is making them tune in to the make-believe world of talk radio and Foxnews. No one is making them believe the self-serving lies wealthy people tell about the economy. No one is making them ignore evidence and sit in an echo chamber. These are the choices they make.

Many of them will respond, “But it’s not the government’s job to provide health care.” If that’s their belief, they have a responsibility to explain why people must die for the sake of their abstract principles.

In sum, if Republican-voting Christians can’t rouse themselves to oppose this inhumane legislation, they ought to step up and have the courage of their convictions. If you want to oppress people, own it and do it proudly.

Putting Things in Context: How Much Does the U.S. Spend on Foreign Aid?

Part of what historians try to do is put things in context. So today, as the Trump Administration releases a budget proposal with large cuts to foreign aid, it’s worth pointing out that the gap between what Americans think the federal government spends on foreign aid and what it actually spends is enormous:

Figure 5: Public Overestimates Share of Budget Going to Foreign Aid

Around 1% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, and much of that is actually military spending. These numbers don’t tell us whether foreign aid is effective. But they do show that there is no vast pot of money just waiting to be unleashed for an “America first” policy. Xenophobia is not conducive to sound budgeting.

White Nationalism Is Deadly. Don’t Play With It.

steve king

Racist Congressman Steve King

This week, Iowa Congressman Steve King has had something of a coming out party as a white nationalist. King’s racism has been on display for years, but rarely has he articulated it in such robust ideological terms. It seems that the shackles are off. And with the Trump/Sessions/Bannon triumvirate at the helm of the executive branch, why not? King’s racist ideology is ascendant in the twenty-first century.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We Americans are lazily optimistic, defaulting to the assumption that things will work out in the end even if there is no particular reason to think so. On no question are white Americans, in particular, more lazily optimistic than the problem of racism. We are moving onward and upward forever!

And yet.

If we understood race for what it is—something constructed in history, contingent and changeable—perhaps we could better see how dangerous is our optimism. Whiteness itself is an identity forged in conquest. As biology, it’s an absurdity. As a way to organize difference and deploy power, it has proven to be extraordinarily meaningful. It’s not that white people conquered and enslaved. It’s closer to the mark to say that these historical processes created white people.  And to the present day this white identity bestows material advantages. That’s why political mobilizations that invoke whiteness as such are always reactionary and oppressive.

That’s why white nationalism is dangerous and profoundly evil. It is a denial of our common humanity; it is the negation of Christianity. That so much white nationalism appeals to a kind of cultural Christianity only reveals how heretical much of the so-called Christian world actually is.

It is white nationalism—not democracy or human rights or racial equality—that is ascendant here and in Europe. That this claim is controversial shows how ill-prepared we are to deal with resurgent racism. A congressman declares his racist ideology and most of us scramble to reinterpret, to condescend, to do everything but take him seriously and assume that he actually means what he says. A President becomes a political figure in the first place through the use of racist rhetoric, and we sit around arguing about whether doing racist stuff makes someone a racist.

I am so tired of the magical thinking, the condescension, the attempts to coddle racists and tell them that, after all, “you don’t really mean that, do you my boy?” To call Steve King a racist is not to insult him. It is to give him the respect we all want and deserve: to have our ideas taken seriously. I’m tired of a world where the pro forma denial, “I’m not a racist,” counts for more than what one actually does. This is a post-truth world where Paul Ryan is considered a good man because he is clean-cut and sounds earnest. It is downright rude to evaluate him on the basis of what he does. It doesn’t matter that he supports racism. Everything is symbolism. Nothing matters.

But all of this does matter. We lazily assume that American history is linear and on an upward trajectory. It is just as likely that a country that began in genocide and enslavement will circle around to a similar ending. We will avoid that kind of outcome in some distant decade or century not because of an historical inevitability or any innate goodness, but because of the tireless efforts of ordinary people willing to become, as Dr. King said, coworkers with God. Right now, we’re playing footsie with one of the most destructive ideologies in human history, an ideology responsible for the death of millions of people. Steve King is not your eccentric uncle. He’s a sitting Congressman espousing the ideology of terrorists like Dylann Roof.

I’m tired of the nominal Christians that think supporting this resurgent white nationalism is something other than a rejection of Christianity. I’m tired of the symbolic Christianity that says Jesus will save your soul and then you’re free to go oppress everybody else. Here, too, we’d do well to take each other seriously and count our actions more important than our intentions.