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Column: The death of evangelicalism

  • President Ronald Reagan meet with Jerry Falwell in the Oval Office, March 15, 1983. (White House/Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

  • Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, waits for the arrival of President Donald Trump to sign an executive order on "improving free inquiry, transparency, and accountability on campus" in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • President Donald Trump smiles as pastor Paula White prepares to lead the room in prayer, during a dinner for evangelical leaders in the State Dining Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • Randall Balmer. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Saturday, April 06, 2019

As the presidential campaign takes shape in the coming months, we’ll hear a lot about evangelical voters. Don’t be misled. Evangelicalism died on Nov. 8, 2016, following a long illness first contracted during the 1980 presidential election.

That’s not to say that there are not voters who still claim to be evangelicals — those who believe that the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, that a religious conversion (“born again”) is central to the life of the believer and that they have a mandate to evangelize, to bring others into the faith.

Evangelicalism, however, once meant much more than that.

Evangelicals set the social and political agenda for much of the United States in the 19th century. Yes, some southern evangelicals stubbornly defended slavery, but evangelicals in the North pushed for abolition. Evangelicals also advocated for prison reform, public education and equal rights for women, including voting rights. They were active in peace crusades, they opposed dueling as barbaric and I’ve even found an instance of an evangelical initiative to control the proliferation of guns.

By the turn of the 20th century, evangelicals supported the rights of workers to organize. One of their great champions, William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic nominee for president, was a pacifist who resigned as Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state when Wilson led the United States into World War I.

Although evangelicals by and large were not active politically during the middle decades of the 20th century, the evangelical social conscience persisted into the 1970s. The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, drafted in November 1973, reiterated evangelical commitment to those on the margins of society, including women and minorities. It decried the persistence of racism and hunger in an affluent society and condemned the growing chasm between rich and poor.

Jimmy Carter’s campaign for the presidency in 1976 lured many evangelicals into the political process, some of them relishing the prospect of voting for one of their own, a “born again” Christian. Carter’s policies were very much in keeping with 19th-century evangelicals and with the Chicago Declaration.

What happened? The standard narrative has evangelicals shrinking in horror from the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that effectively struck down laws against abortion. According to this “abortion myth,” endlessly reiterated by leaders of the religious right, evangelicals mobilized in the 1970s to end the scourge of abortion, much the way 19th-century evangelicals fought against slavery.

The “abortion myth,” however, is a convenient fiction. Evangelicals did not mobilize as a political movement because of abortion. They mobilized instead to defend the segregationist policies at places like Bob Jones University and various “segregation academies” such as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, Va. Falwell himself had a long history of segregationist rhetoric.

He referred to the 1964 Civil Rights Act as “Civil Wrongs,” and he pilloried the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954. “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made,” Falwell declared.

“The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

Falwell and other leaders of the religious right decided that Ronald Reagan, not Carter, a fellow evangelical, deserved their support in the 1980 presidential election — this despite Reagan’s divorce and remarriage, a taboo to evangelicals at the time. With Reagan’s election, the religious right threw in its lot with the Republican Party — and at the same time turned its back on its own heritage of care for those Jesus called “the least of these.”

The 2016 embrace of Donald Trump — thrice married, a former casino operator and serial liar (an average of something like six a day, according to several independent fact-checking sources) — represented merely the culmination of a decades-long declension.

The fact that Trump garnered the support of 81 percent of white evangelicals in 2016 stated loud and clear that this is a movement without a moral conscience.

Falwell was by no means the only televangelist complicit in this betrayal of evangelical principles by the religious right. Although Pat Robertson supported Carter in 1976, he quickly turned against him, using his television empire to shill for Reagan and for the Republican Party. (Robertson himself ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.) A recent book, The Gospel of Self: How Pat Robertson Stole the Soul of the GOP, provides a behind-the-scenes look at Robertson and the influence of his television program, The 700 Club.

Terry Heaton, the author, was executive producer for Robertson’s show, and he still holds Robertson in high regard. But he believes that The 700 Club, with its unabashed partisanship, provided the template for Fox News. I’m not sure I find the argument entirely persuasive, but Heaton makes a strong case.

“Right wing media is not, nor will it ever be, a part of the press, for its core purpose is the manipulation of culture through distortion, the very thing it assigns to the so-called ‘liberal’ media,” he writes. “Moreover, many contemporary right wing media outlets are nothing more than political operatives with the sole purpose of repeating over and over again their purely political arguments. To this end, nothing is out-of-bounds, for baseless and provable lies are fair game in a sea of ethical emptiness.”

A sea of ethical emptiness pretty much captures the state of evangelicalism today. Yes, there are a few evangelicals — Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, Lisa Sharon Harper, Tony Campolo — who have kept the faith. But none of them has a media empire on the scale of Robertson or other leaders of the religious right.

A recent Pew poll showed that 69 percent of white evangelicals still support Trump — this despite revelations of his adulteries and his cavorting with a porn star, not to mention his prevarications and policies that fly in the face of biblical injunctions to care for the poor and to welcome the stranger. Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the aforementioned founder of the religious right, recently said he could not imagine any action on Trump’s part that would cause Falwell to withdraw his support. The younger Falwell even went on to suggest that it “may be immoral” for evangelicals not to support Trump.

But as Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, “There is no there there.” Evangelicalism, once a movement that advocated for social justice, has lost all moral credibility. Pundits will continue to talk about the evangelical vote as we head into the 2020 election, but the vast majority of those who claim the moniker of evangelical have forfeited any claims to the noble tradition that once sought to reshape the nation according to the norms of godliness.

They are flailing in a sea of ethical emptiness.

Randall Balmer is a historian of religion in North America at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, including Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.