LGBT Rights and the Future of Evangelicalism

Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Behold the President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse:

Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women. 2/3— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) April 24, 2019

I am not going to spend a lot of energy on Franklin Graham’s hypocrisy. It’s exhausting already. Most of us who are not in his bubble find it hard to credit that he cares a great deal about what the Bible says. Trump supporters should not expect their moral claims to be taken seriously in any case. But I do have other questions:

How do Graham’s anti-gay views position him in the evolving world of evangelicalism? Is he the old guard that’s passing away? Does he represent a committed minority that is not going to change any time soon?

There has been a lot of talk about generational change in evangelicalism, but “evangelicals are becoming more liberal and diverse and concerned about a broader range of moral issues” is the kind of evergreen story that seems to be written every year, and every year the consummation of this shift remains just beyond the horizon. I expect men (yes, men in particular) like Graham to continue to have a large platform for decades to come.

But my best guess is that they’ll speak for a smaller constituency. An anti-gay evangelicalism will necessarily be a marginalized community in many ways. But even if the evangelical mainstream was to become thoroughly pro-LGBT tomorrow, it’s not clear it would arrest the decline of the movement. The numbers for self-identified evangelicals by age cohort are brutal (as they are for mainline churches as well). American Christians are old, and getting older.

There’s no question that white evangelicals are becoming more accepting of LGBT rights. A solid majority now favors legal protections for LGBT people, a remarkable turnaround from the days when most evangelicals spoke openly about wanting to punish LGBT people for their “lifestyle.”

And younger white evangelicals are indeed leading the way: “A substantial majority (63%) of young white evangelical Protestants (ages 18-29) favor LGBT nondiscrimination protections, compared to less than half (45%) of white evangelical Protestant seniors (ages 65 and older).”

But this polling doesn’t actually tell us that many white evangelicals would disagree with Graham. They might not want gay people kicked out of their apartments, and they might think “homosexuality is not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized.” Indeed, most white evangelicals continue to oppose gay marriage: “About one-third (34%) of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage today, while six in ten (60%) are opposed, including 30% who are strongly opposed. There are notable generational gaps among white evangelical Protestants: four in ten (40%) of those under age 50 favor same-sex marriage, compared to 27% of those ages 50 and over.”

There is clearly some measure of generational change, but none of these questions cut to the core claim Graham is trying to make: in his view, homosexuality is sinful. On that point, most white evangelicals of all ages agree with him.

As Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote:

Some evangelicals believe there’s a difference between supporting gay marriage as a public policy matter and gay marriage as sanctioned by churches. A large majority of white evangelicals (including younger generations) continue to see homosexual relations as morally wrong, according to the General Social Survey.

The 2016 survey found 75 percent of white evangelicals saying homosexual sexual relations are always or nearly always wrong. That number is down from 82 percent in 1996 and 90 percent in 1987. The survey does not show a large generational gap, however. In 2014-2016 surveys, 70 percent of Generation X/millennial white evangelicals said same-sex sexual relations are nearly always or always wrong, compared to 81 percent of baby boomers/older generations.

The future of evangelicalism could be pro-LGBT, but it seems at least as likely that pro-LGBT Christians will simply stop identifying as evangelical. White evangelicalism will be a smaller, older movement, and its historic grievances and blind spots will persist. For Franklin Graham, hatred and all manner of cruelty can be excused in service of larger political goals. But a man loving a man–well, that’s just too much. We have to draw a line somewhere!

Abortion Concern In Evangelicalism Is Primarily A Rhetorical Move

I was paging through Ed Stetzer’s new book some weeks ago and was reminded of these astonishing bits of data from that big Lifeway/Billy Graham Center research project last year: in the 2016 election, only 5% of “evangelicals by belief”* cited the candidate’s position on abortion rights as the most important factor in their vote. Much larger numbers of “evangelicals by belief” went to the polls with the same concerns as non-evangelical Americans: the economy, health care, immigration, and national security (these results are for all evangelicals by belief, not just white evangelicals).

But let’s be as fair as possible. 7% of evangelicals by belief also cited supreme court nominees as their most important consideration; abortion may have loomed large for those voters. And it’s possible that many evangelicals approached the election with abortion as a secondary or tertiary concern that factored into their vote. Still, I find these results remarkable. When evangelicals are asked to name the most important thing determining their vote, abortion barely registers. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that abortion plays a rhetorical function in right-wing politics out of all proportion to its actual power to drive evangelical moral concern.

As the 2020 election approaches, you’ll hear a lot of commentary about abortion and binary choices and the lesser of two evils. There are a small number of evangelicals who are sincere in their commitment to protect the unborn. With them I have no quibble. Though I disagree with many of their tactics and am concerned about pervasive sexism in the pro-life movement, protecting the unborn is a noble and righteous work. But the tenor of evangelical political discourse in the coming year and half will be an elaborate gaslighting effort. For most white evangelicals, abortion is a rhetorical shield to avoid answering for their enthusiastic embrace of an evil ruler.

A recent Foxnews poll highlights this again. White evangelicals broadly have warm and happy feelings toward Trump and his administration’s policies! Most white evangelicals seem to like racism and have unusual amounts of fear and hatred toward people who are not like them. Some results from that poll, among white evangelicals:

77% approve of Trump’s job performance.

75% have a favorable opinion of Trump himself.

3% think abortion is the biggest issue facing the country today. 33% think immigration is the biggest issue facing the country.

38% think the Trump administration is “not tough enough” on illegal immigrants; another 40% think it’s “about right.”

71% support building a wall on the border.

92% would be satisfied if Trump receives the 2020 Republican nomination (so much for the binary choice defense!). [Clarification: this question obviously only includes white evangelicals who are Republican primary voters].

Abortion is a very serious moral problem with no easy solutions. It is a shame that its primary role in evangelical politics is as cover for shameful behavior.

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*The survey defined respondents as “evangelical by belief” if they “strongly agree” with the following statements:

The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe

It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation

The survey seemed designed to rehabilitate evangelical reputations in the age of Trump, but instead it only reinforced the evidence that, broadly speaking, mainstream polls of self-identified evangelicals provide a roughly accurate picture of opinion. As data has consistently shown in recent years, more committed evangelical churchgoers tend to be more committed Trump supporters.

A New Study Suggests the Christian Right Is Souring Americans On Religion

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One of the most important changes in the American religious landscape in recent decades is the dramatic rise in the numbers of people claiming no religious affiliation (now around a quarter of the population). Everyone agrees that this is happening, but why is it happening? A new article in Political Research Quarterly says the Christian Right has a lot to do with it. The authors argue that the rise of the “nones” is not consistent across the country, but is instead correlated with the clout and visibility of Christian Right politics in various places:

We argue that the rate of change is uneven across the states, driven by the salient policy controversy linked to Christian Right activism. Our findings suggest that Christian Right influence in state politics seems to negatively affect religion, such that religious attachments fade in the face of visible Christian Right policy victories.

If they’re correct, we may see this trend intensify in the Trump era. Whatever you think of the Christian Right, in decades past there was at least a case to be made that the movement had some sincerely held convictions. Now, it is impossible for anyone not in that bubble to take their claims about anything seriously.

We’ll have to wait and see the data that emerges on religious affiliation in the coming years. The authors note that this wouldn’t be the first time political engagement appeared to reduce religious affiliation:

American religion has faced similar trade-offs before. The turbulent 1960s witnessed a new breed of religious leaders from more liberal, mainline Protestant denominations taking positions on the pressing issues of the day, often (from the perspective of organizational maintenance, at least) to disastrous effect. Clergy involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements precipitated losses in lay membership. For instance, one survey found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of church leaders who participated in acts of antiwar civil disobedience reported that their churches had subsequently lost members (Quinley 1974). Another study found that Protestant ministers who were involved in efforts at desegregation faced increasingly empty pews as their flocks bolted in favor of other congregations whose leaders espoused more pro-segregationist views or stayed out of the matter altogether (Campbell and Pettigrew 1959). These “storms in the churches” (Hadden 1969) are often credited with leading to membership declines among more liberal mainline Protestant churches (e.g., Wuthnow 1999).

In light of this history, there is a certain irony to the present situation in which elements of the Christian Right find themselves, as the early movement modeled many of its tactics after those employed by mainline churches during the civil rights movement (Findlay 1990). And just as involvement in the controversies of the day ushered in a period of organizational decline in which parishioners deserted mainline Protestantism in droves, it appears as though the Christian Right is following a strikingly similar path.

It may be that large numbers of Americans across the political spectrum want to believe that there are somehow discrete domains separate from one another—one that we call “religion” and another that we call “politics”—and that these Americans are inclined to withdraw from affiliation with those who dare to transgress those imagined borders.

As we imagine religion as something private and symbolic and of the mind, we look askance at those who take their religion as the basis of their public and political acts. I think that’s a mistake. We need the public activism that comes from the wellsprings of faith. You can’t applaud the civil rights movement and then lament the influence of religion in public life.

The problem with the Christian Right is not that it’s political religion but that it’s political religion based in fear and hatred. In response to this destructive movement, there is an understandable desire to cut religion out of politics, or vice versa, but these are pipe dreams. You can choose the politics of your religion, but apolitical religion is not one of your choices. A so-called apolitical religion is merely one whose politics its adherents have made to seem natural or sacred.

Hopefully evangelicals beyond the Christian Right can see the rise of the “nones” as a good thing. Insofar as people are discarding religion in response to the Christian Right, they are demonstrating more openness to the claims of Jesus, not less. The challenge for Christians moving forward is to practice politics rooted in love for the other and the good of the community. Whether we like it or not, that’s not Christian common sense; it’s a political agenda.

Billy Graham Has Died

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Advertising the 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that made Graham a national figure

Billy Graham has died. There is much to criticize in Graham’s long career, but much to learn from as well. What stands out to me about Graham’s life is growth. Like other great historical figures, he was not static. As Graham’s influence expanded, so too did his moral vision. We’re all flawed. Only some of us become better as we age. Only rarely do powerful people become more compassionate as their power grows. But that’s what Billy Graham did.

He came from a provincial southern fundamentalism. Graham was so unsophisticated that even Wheaton College was a new world for him. As a young man he had a taste for fancy clothes and finer things, perhaps an early hint of how in his worst moments he would become blinded by his proximity to power. But Graham’s meteoric ascent also revealed a growing maturity.

In 1956 Look Magazine asked Graham if he was a fundamentalist. Graham replied,

If by fundamentalism you mean ‘narrow’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’, ‘extremist’, ‘emotional’, ‘snakehandler’ without social conscience – then I am not a fundamentalist. However, if by fundamentalist you mean a person who accepts the authority of the scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, his bodily resurrection, his second coming and personal salvation by grace through faith, then I am a fundamentalist. However, I much prefer being called ‘Christian’.

The cynic’s take is that this was nothing more than rebranding on the part of Graham and a cadre of elite white neo-evangelicals. It certainly was that. But that’s not all it was. Graham’s desire to simply be known as a Christian indicated a broadening of his vision. As he aged, Graham would become increasingly ecumenical and respectful of other traditions. For that he earned the contempt of fundamentalists.

Graham’s failures were many. At times he preached a vague civil religion, a Cold War religious nationalism that had little to do with following Jesus. He struggled to see beyond his investments in American nationalism and American whiteness. He could have struck a major blow for the civil rights movement, but instead his faith in individual conversion made him a useful avatar for colorblind reactionary politics. He conflated Christianity and Republicanism. Indeed, it is fair to ask if Billy Graham was the first court evangelical.

But if he was the first court evangelical, it’s a role he came to regret. Graham’s post-watergate career was not without problems, but the direction of his movement was clear. While a newly visible Christian Right would embrace the politics of fear and hatred, Graham tried to keep his distance. He seemed to stand for something more simple and more winsome: we’re all sinners, Jesus loves us, turn to him.

As we mark Graham’s passing it is easy to dwell on his failures. But I hope we will also appreciate how he grew over time and became a figure of comfort and inspiration to millions. In an age when many Christian voices promote hatred, Graham’s sermons offer a different message: God loves you. Tragically, Graham struggled to instill this message in his own children. Franklin Graham’s current behavior is not just a slander against the name of Jesus, it is a profound repudiation of the arc of his father’s life. Billy Graham was willing to learn and change. We need more people like that in public life.

Trump’s Spiritual Biography

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I admit I want to read this.

Two leading mouthpieces of the Christian Right are out with a new book next week, The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual biography. One of the authors, Christian Broadcasting Network’s Chief Political Correspondent David Brody, has been conducting groveling interviews with Trump for a long time. The insights gathered from those discussions no doubt inform the book.

Presumably Brody is working with great material like this:

God is the ultimate. I mean, look at my golf course. The funniest thing about Brody’s interview style is the way he asks leading questions and then desperately wills Trump toward the right answer, but Trump can’t help but talk about himself or go off on irrelevant tangents.

With all these spiritual depths to explore, I’m sure the authors have had difficulty fitting everything into 300 or 400 pages. You can browse a sample of the upcoming book, courtesy of the publisher.

Popular evangelical mythmaker Eric Metaxas has written the foreward to the book, and he begins this way:

When my friend David Brody told me he was writing a book titled The Faith of Donald J. Trump, I was tempted to laugh.

My dear evangelical friend, this is one temptation to which you can safely yield. It is important to Metaxas that you know precisely how close he came to yielding. So, a page later:

But I must say it once more, that at first, I really was tempted to giggle.

Oh, my friend. Live a little. Let that giggle out.

Somewhere in Metaxas’ subconscious is the knowledge that he has become absurd. That knowledge is leaking out onto the page. He really wants you to know that his instinct, like that of any conscious person, was to laugh at Brody’s project.

Alas, Metaxas suppressed that instinct and came around to a more considered opinion:

But the terrifically stubborn fact is that Donald Trump has been embraced by many serious Christians, and this has caused many Christians and non-Christians alike to seethe with fury at the seeming hypocrisy of the whole arrangement. One vital clue to solving this thorny riddle has to do with what may well be the most fundamental dissonance and misunderstanding in the history of the world. I’m talking about the difference between moral behavior on the one hand and grace and faith in the God of the Bible on the other.

….the God of the Bible does not ask us to be morally perfect so that He will accept us. He asks us to admit that we cannot be morally perfect, to see that only He can be morally perfect…

People who understand this therefore understand the concept of grace to those who—as they are—are morally imperfect…

My first instinct was to laugh at the idea of taking Trump’s spirituality seriously, Metaxas says, but then I realized that the Christian concept of grace could be used to excuse and justify any kind of behavior. When you apply the concept of grace to unrepentant people who are really powerful, it shows you how big grace really is! Brilliant!

In the introduction, the authors get right to the point many evangelicals want to know: is Donald Trump really a Christian? We’re not going to tell you, they say. But they do have a quote from Mike Pence:

President Donald Trump is a believer. I say that with great conviction.

Pence always lies with great conviction. When the authors went looking for a quote from Trump himself testifying of his faith, the results were a bit underwhelming:

I would say that the faith is that I am a believer. I believe. And when you believe, many good things can happen. And hopefully, those good things will happen for the nation.

Ok, so the power of positive thinking. But many evangelical readers will find this highly significant:

One major theme of Part II of this book will be that Donald Trump seems to be on a spiritual voyage that has accelerated greatly in the past few years as he has regularly interacted with evangelicals.

As a baby Christian, Trump is still learning who to hate, and how best to hate them. Don’t worry, he will get better at it.

Trump’s Big Lie—and the Court Evangelicals Who Believe Him

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“Why should I repent? Stocks are booming!”

President Trump called for unity in last night’s state of the union speech. Though he lies constantly and gratuitously unlike any President before him, calling for unity is a deeper and bigger kind of lie. It’s not a misstatement of fact as much as a coercive attempt to make us all live in the oppressor’s imagination. In that imagined reality, dehumanizing people does not and should not disrupt American unity. Immigrants and Muslims and people of color should be silent and happy no matter what is said about them or done to them.

Out here in the real world, most of us intuitively understand that domination is not the same thing as unity. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of it.

The call for unity was a rhetorical flourish delivered in bad faith, worthy of as much serious consideration as any randomly selected tweet from the President’s stream-of-consciousness thumbs.

If the President wanted unity he would start by offering a public apology for his decision to hate human beings, dehumanize them, and oppress them. He would explain why he did it, why and how he became aware of his evil behavior, and how he plans to make amends.

Once the President does that, we can have a conversation and search for common ground. This is a basic evangelical posture toward an evil ruler. We pray for such leaders, but our prayers center on the need for repentance and restitution. In the absence of repentance, we pray that their evil plans would be frustrated.

In contrast, the court evangelicals not only enable Trump, they take the radically anti-Christian posture that he doesn’t have much to repent of. For people like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress, discriminating against gay people and letting white evangelicals visit the White House are key parts of advancing the gospel. Dehumanizing people and hating them are political positions about which Christianity is not concerned.

Here’s what Franklin Graham had to say yesterday:

With the stock market humming, pay raises and bonuses bristling, unemployment down, ISIS largely defeated, and taxes going down, the State of the Union shows glimmers of hope. Yet, we all know that something is missing. The party out of power would prefer failure. We are divided. It takes humility to place your country’s best interests before your own. God’s Word says we all need to humble ourselves before the Lord and He will lift us up in due time. Whatever the State of the Union, as a nation, we need to humble ourselves, pray, and ask for mercy from a God who can sympathize with our weaknesses. Please pray for humility for all those that govern us across this nation, and pray that we the people would humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God.

Sounds nice, huh? Wait, what’s this? “The party out of power would prefer failure. We are divided.” Franklin Graham, an open and ardent Trump supporter, is lamenting that Americans are divided. He believes Trump’s big lie. He doesn’t experience Trump’s dehumanizing words and actions as threats to American unity because they don’t strike directly at his identity and community.

At this point it’s impossible to expect any honest dialogue from court evangelicals, but it would be fascinating to get a real response to a scenario like this: imagine that Trump said native-born white Americans are rapists and criminals in general, that the problem with white evangelical communities is that they have no spirit, that there were good people on both sides after a terrorist attack killed a white evangelical woman, that all Christian immigrants should be banned from entering the country, and so on.

Would the court evangelicals experience these statements as unifying and productive? Would it make them enthusiastic supporters of the President? If they would be bothered by these statements when directed at their own community, why don’t the same statements bother them when directed at other communities? Their refusal to align their lives with the gospel is obvious to everyone but themselves.

The Sense of Loss Fueling Christian Right Politics

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Last night some remarks Roy Moore made several months ago resurfaced. Back in September, the LA Times reported:

In response to a question from one of the only African Americans in the audience — who asked when Moore thought America was last “great” — Moore acknowledged the nation’s history of racial divisions, but said: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

I want to hear from the reporter about what might have been contained in the ellipsis, but it’s hard to imagine a context that makes this ok. There are two main ways to read this. One is that the united families he speaks of were white and he is ignoring the existence of black people. The other is that he is resurrecting the old saw that says while slavery wasn’t good, at least black families were together.

Either way you read it, the statement is hateful and dehumanizing. For the record, historians of slavery estimate that around a third of enslaved families in the antebellum period were broken up by sale. In any case, these families were not legally constituted and had no legal recourse in the face of every imaginable assault on the family: sale, assault, rape, child abuse, and so on.

Though Moore’s words reveal the mind of a racist extremist, they also reflect a sensibility that is quite common in the Christian Right. The movement’s politics are fueled by an extraordinary sense of loss and nostalgia.

Christian Right activists are forever trying to recover a lost golden age. They look to that nineteenth century moment when evangelicalism was at the center of American life. From public schools to universities, religion was honored. The nation’s foundation was secure. Then came the inroads of Darwinism, mass migration, urbanization and industrialization, then the sweeping cultural changes of the 1920s. Suddenly the country seemed so much more complicated.

The 1950s were an echo of that nineteenth century golden age. Never had the American public been so faithful in church attendance, and in the battle against communism America’s leaders publicly called for divine aid. Faith was once again honored in the public square. Hierarchies of sex, gender, and race were intact.

Then it all came crashing down in the 1960s. Sexual revolution, youth rebellion, Supreme Court decisions taking God out of schools. For the white nationalist evangelicals, the oppression of black people in these supposed golden ages is a feature. Others in the Christian Right are simply not thinking about black people at all. Because black people are not a part of their imagination, not a part of the community of full human beings, it is possible to read American history as a story of unmitigated decline.

Most people fueled by this politics of loss say that of course they think slavery was bad. Of course they don’t want a return to Jim Crow. But they fail to see how even such basic claims—“slavery is bad”—if taken seriously, challenge their politics of loss.

What’s most striking about the Christian Right’s nostalgia is its extraordinarily narrow scope. The narrative of loss speaks to the historical experience and memory of a minority of Americans, but they insist that it defines the national story. For Roy Moore and his supporters, the idea that there are people in the world who aren’t white middle-class Christians, and they matter too, is a disorienting shock.

Southern Baptists Beclown Themselves

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Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a Christian before he is a political lobbyist, and that has many white Southern Baptists concerned. The backstory is that Moore kept his integrity during the election while criticizing religious right leaders for prostituting themselves. This made a lot of Southern Baptists angry. There was a lot of speculation that Moore was about to be fired a couple months ago. That didn’t happen. Moore apologized and the rift seemed to close somewhat. But this was definitely a “to be continued” story.

The Wall Street Journal (paywalled) reported yesterday that there are still lingering animosities even months after Moore’s apology. Some churches are still withholding their monies from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. And some Southern Baptists are upset that Moore seems to have no influence with the new administration. What’s the point of a public policy arm if it doesn’t really speak for the majority of the denomination and doesn’t have the ear of Republican leaders? The Journal writes:

After years of feeling shut out during the Obama administration, evangelicals are now enjoying far greater access at the White House. Mr. Moore, however, has been shut out, according to evangelicals who work in Washington. A White House spokeswoman said Mr. Moore didn’t appear to have visited since Mr. Trump took office.

While other evangelical leaders were in the White House Rose Garden last month, he was at a conference about orphans in Nashville, according to his Twitter feed.

What a sucker. Paying attention to orphans while there is political power to be courted in the nation’s capital. How could Russell Moore be so stupid?

Here’s a special Southern Baptist quiz for you. Who’s more offensive:

a) A racist, proud, dishonest, greedy, cruel, selfish, Christ-hating sexual predator?

b) Russell Moore?

That’s easy. Russell Moore is way more offensive.

The Politics of Evangelical Identity

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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.

Trump at Liberty University

trump

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.