Column: How four out of five evangelicals became unshakably partisan

  • Contra Costa Times illustration -- Chuck Todd

  • 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
Published: 11/30/2019 10:20:15 PM

I should be over it by now, but I confess that the number 81 continues to haunt me. Following the shock of Election Day 2016, the further news that 81% of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump was devastating to me personally. These were the same people who had been telling us for the past four decades that they were devoted to “family values,” but then they pivoted and, without hint of irony or apology, cast their votes for a twice-divorced, self-confessed sexual predator.

I understand that many New Englanders regard evangelicals as exotic or weird, and I expect that many of them weren’t terribly surprised by evangelical voting behavior. But as someone who hails from that tradition and who has spent much of his career studying and writing about the movement, I was, well, devastated.

For years, I have argued in books, articles, op-eds and even a couple of documentaries that evangelicalism, in contrast to the religious right, has a long and distinguished history. Evangelicals set the social and political agenda for much of the 19th century. They advocated for the poor and the rights of workers to organize. They supported prison reform and public education. They enlisted in peace crusades and supported women’s equality, including voting rights. Charles Grandison Finney, the most influential evangelical of the 19th century, excoriated free-market capitalism as inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus; a “Christian businessman,” Finney suggested was an oxymoron.

What happened? The short version of a rather complicated story is that evangelicals went underground following the Scopes trial of 1925. In the middle decades of the 20th century, they decided that the larger world was both corrupt and corrupting, so they began constructing what I call the evangelical subculture, a vast and interlocking network of congregations, denominations, camps, schools, publishing houses and the like to protect themselves — and especially their children — from the ravages of the broader culture.

It’s tempting at this point in the abridged narrative to skip directly to the emergence of the religious right in the late 1970s, when Jerry Falwell and other evangelical leaders abandoned Jimmy Carter, one of their own, for Ronald Reagan in the run-up to the 1980 presidential election. Although leaders of the religious right claimed retrospectively — that is, more than a decade after the fact — that opposition to abortion summoned them to the frontlines of political battle, the inconvenient truth is that they mobilized politically to defend the tax exemptions of their racially segregated schools, including Bob Jones University.

The emergence of the religious right was surely a turning point — a sharp and unmistakable turn to the right — but it wasn’t inevitable. The 1970s, in fact, saw a remarkable resurgence of progressive evangelicalism, a version of the movement consistent with the legacy of 19th-century evangelicals.

Two geographical areas, northern Illinois and the “Main Line” of Philadelphia, served as the focus for progressive evangelical activity in the early 1970s. In the greater Philadelphia area, Tony Campolo, a sociologist at Eastern College (now Eastern University), and Ronald Sider, a theologian at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Theological Seminary), led the charge. Campolo was (and remains) a tireless advocate for progressive evangelical values; he is one of the founding members of an organization called Red Letter Christians, which seeks to remind the faithful to heed the teachings of Jesus. Sider was founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and author of a bestselling book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, published in 1977.

The other locus of progressive evangelical activity in the early 1970s was Deerfield, in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago. There, Jim Wallis, a seminary student, together with his friends at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, formed a community in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago and began publishing a tabloid called the Post Amerikan. When the group relocated to Washington, D.C., in 1975, they took the name Sojourners.

On the same Deerfield campus, a cohort of young faculty at Trinity College, led by Douglas Frank, David Schlafer and Nancy Hardesty, began challenging their students to question the morality of the war in Vietnam and to take seriously both the teachings of Jesus and the example of 19th-century evangelicalism. I was one of those students. We learned about Jesus’ concern for the poor. We started to think about protecting the environment and defending people of color. We debated how to pursue justice.

Although a majority of the student body remained conservative, a substantial minority of us caught the vision of an evangelicalism untethered to the shibboleths of the evangelical subculture. It was a bracing moment, a glimpse of what a politics informed by the teachings of Jesus might look like.

When Sider convened 55 evangelical leaders at the YMCA on Wabash Street in Chicago in November 1973, these progressive evangelicals produced a remarkable document: the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. Echoing the emphases of 19th-century evangelicals, the declaration condemned the persistence of poverty, militarism and racism in American society. It questioned why so many Americans were hungry in a nation of such affluence. At the behest of Nancy Hardesty, an English professor at Trinity College, the Chicago Declaration reaffirmed evangelicals’ historic commitment to women’s equality.

Within six months, the governor of Georgia addressed a gathering of the University of Georgia Law School, an appearance that effectively launched his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jimmy Carter sounded many of the same themes as the Chicago Declaration, especially the matter of justice for people of color and for those less fortunate.

The rest, as they say, is history. Carter, the Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, was elected president in 1976 and sought to govern according to his lights as a progressive evangelical — all the while, as a good Baptist, observing the separation of church and state: an emphasis on human rights, the renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaties as a matter of justice for those in Latin America, energy conservation and environmental preservation, pursuing peace in the Middle East.

The 1970s was in many ways the golden age of progressive evangelicalism. It was also its last stand.

With such challenges as the Arab oil embargo, high interest rates and a persistently sour economy, no president could have succeeded in the late 1970s. Add to that the taking of hostages in Iran in November 1979, Carter faced a daunting challenge as he faced reelection. Reagan brilliantly exploited Carter’s perceived failures as president, and with the help of the newly organized religious right, won the 1980 election.

Progressive evangelicals — the other evangelicals — took a hit, a body blow from which they have never recovered.

The rest of the story is all too familiar. With progressive evangelicalism on the ropes, the religious right proceeded to steer evangelicals toward the far-right precincts of the Republican Party. That alliance has congealed over the past four decades so that 81%, four out of five evangelicals, as attested by the last election, are unflinchingly partisan. It appears that nothing — neither personal immorality nor public scandal — can shake those allegiances.

The number 81 continues to haunt me.

Randall Balmer, a professor at Dartmouth College, is the author of Evangelicalism in America and Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America.




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