American evangelicals face a unique, if unrecognized, dilemma. Though the movement continues to maintain itself and even by some measures modestly grow, the influence of the movement continues to be in decline. This is particularly true in the realm of politics, where the form and substance of political engagement lacks the clarity of previous eras of the church.
Inside evangelicalism there is no clear consensus as to the nature of the present challenge, let alone the way forward. Some advocate a doubling down on existing political strategies, others for complete disengagement, and still others for engagement, but on a more diverse range of issues.
Developing an understanding of political theology ought to be central to the task of setting the movement on a more robust footing. Such an undertaking may be particularly illuminating to the specific challenges of the current moment. On what basis such a theology stands or what such a theology entails will need to be left for another time.
The aim of this short essay is to give a sense of the dimensions of our current American evangelical dilemma.
How did we get here?
The American Experiment
America was founded during an era of Christian political thought that favored a strong relationship between the church and state. Many European states had explicitly Christian identities. In the east, the Czar was both the head and overseer of the Russian Orthodox Church. While in the west, with some notable exceptions, many Europeans countries retained an explicitly Christian identity, often with formal and overlapping legal functions between the church and the state. The British had the Anglican Church, many Germanic states had the Lutheran Church, the Netherlands had the Dutch Reformed Church, and so on.
Christian political theological is ultimately shaped by its encounter with Constantine. As Oliver O’Donovan reminds us in Desire of Nations, here the expectation of a Christianity that had brought everything under the reign of Jesus was in a limited way fulfilled by the political structures of Rome. Here was a state that was explicitly Christian. What did such a reality mean for the ultimate and coming reign of Christ, what did it mean for the role of the church visa via the state, who should reign supreme the church or the state, should the church be free to make its own ecclesial judgment, if so on what basis?
This experience and the different answers given, would shape and reshape Christian understandings and experience around the proper roles of the church and the state.
As most colonialists were Western European and mostly from Britain, the Netherlands, or Germany, we’ll limit our historical scope to Western European Christianity. The American colonials attracted a remarkable number of what amounts to Christian political dissidents.
The Puritans of New England belonged to no established church-state relationship. They were the radical end of Calvinistic pietists who came to America to establish their own society. Having no official home in Europe, they would make their own Puritan (later Congregationalist and other local variations) church/state home in New England.
The word Puritan is used very loosely here to describe those Calvinist dissidents who could find no acceptable political and church accommodations in Britain and the Netherlands. The Puritans and their influence were substantial within a wide range of Christian churches. This is by no means an exhaustive historical account of the Puritans or their development in New England.
New York was prominently settled by Dutch Reformed Christians, who held to an established church/state relationship. Pennsylvania was a colony with strong Christian ideals without one official church but with a strong preference for Protestant churches. The diversity of those churches and their approaches to the state is what made for a sort of Protestant guiding ethos, which we will return to shortly.
Maryland was notable for allowing a Catholic minority. Virginia and the Southern colonials were mainly establishment Anglican colonials with a notable Baptist presence.
At the founding of the United States, two factors lead to the disestablishment clause contained in the First Amendment. The first was the sheer diversity of Christians in the colonials. No one group had the supermajority of adherents. The two largest groups Anglicans (for many reasons) and Puritans/Congregationalists were not in enough influence to secure an official Christian state. Thus, a second factor proved decisive in articulating the Christian character and views of the early American state.
As an important note many Anglicans sided with the British crown during the American Revolution. Those Anglicans that sided with the Revolutionists and those who stayed or became Anglican after the Revolution reconstituted the same church and renamed it and its new structures Episcopal. If the United States had an official state church in terms of influence and adherents among the political class it was the Episcopal Church. The history of said church and its influence on American religious and political history will
be for another time.
Baptists (the true fore-runners of modern evangelicals), Quakers, and other religious minorities found common cause with Diests and others around the idea religions should be free from state oversight. No established national church and consequently no official Christian character to the law.
One might ask whether an established church is the only demark of a Christian state. Could one not have a Christian state and uniquely Christian laws without an established church? During this era of late Christendom such a paradigm did not exist. Even within present times such a category of theological thought has not been fully developed. Given these realities, one can hardly blame colonial evangelicals for not having such a paradigm.
The Congregationalist/Puritan churches retained their status as established churches within New England, and a new marketplace of religion began to reign throughout the newly founded American states.
Many evangelicals and other Protestants adhered to a sort of Protestant guiding ethos. The state would need no official Christian orientation because in the market of religion Protestants would be in perpetual influence by their supermajority status, and, therefore Christianity could guide and influence the laws of the land while safeguarding a common Christian sensibility.
Steady Loss of Protestant Influence
In a free market there are many forces at play in the rise and fall of Christian influence. Many events and ideas outside of Christianity are also making their impact felt. Not the least of which is civic religion, whose interplay would only overly complicate discovering a sense of how we got to our current moment.
An excellent introduction to the dynamics of market driven (or choice driven) Christianity is supplied by Nathan O’Hatch in his The Democratization of American Christianity. Suffice to say that the American experience of Christianity was unlike any other the world had seen to date.
For Protestant Christianity there is no steady downward trend from golden age to death, so much, as a series of points and events that in totality can be said to point to the steady loss of Protestant influence.
Many contemporary social conservative Catholics and Evangelicals point to the liberalization of sexual ethics within Mainline Protestantism and the culture at large as the sign of the demise of the culture. While sexual ethics is an important and interesting flash point in Mainline Protestantism, it is too reductionistic as a lens and tool for analysis. Ultimately cultural practice quickly outpaced the teachings of Mainline Protestant churches, which raises the question of the actual influence of those teachings within the culture, and sheds no light as to the reasons for decline within Mainline Protestantism and very little light on the interplay between the Mainline Protestant church and the broader culture.
For our purposes let us focus on the middle half of the 20th century. Some could start earlier, some much later. In the middle half of the 20th century we notice a sharp decline in Mainline Protestant thought and synthesis within national political life as evidenced by the lack of a robust social action which had animated much of the late 19th and early 20th century. Gone are the forces of the social gospel movement, gone is the strength of the prohibition movement, and the synthesis between American ideals and Protestant language is becoming scarcer within the national dialogue.
One could make a lengthy analysis of the language used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. Roosevelt would be the last best example of Mainline Protestant language and thought from that era. As we get into the late 1940s, there is a notably drop in religiously infused language, which indicates a lack of political movement influenced by religious impetus and thought. This period in American religious life deserves a richer analysis.
In its place we begin to see declining church attendance, a growing culture without any explicit Christian reference, and the growing existential treat of communism.
Many do not realize that Billy Graham began his career as an ardent anticommunist. This was one of the reasons that William Randolph Hearst ordered papers under his direct control to “poof Graham.”
Mainline Protestantism begins to see a sharp decline in position and cultural influence, and to the evangelicals (held together by their pietistic and non-engagement attitudes) there seems to be some very worrying trends in the Protestant guiding ethos.
Evangelical Political Engagement
By the late 1960s evangelicals began to organize themselves and not just evangelicals, but conservative Catholics. Though one could trace evangelical social thinking visa via Billy Graham and the 1950s, let us take Francis Schaeffer as our jumping off point. And while I will make mention of Catholicism, I will save the background and reasons for Catholic engagement for another time.
Schaeffer was a leading light in stirring evangelical conscience towards engagement. While not as campaign oriented as those like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Schaeffer broke the mold on the need for evangelical engagement on issues like abortion and euthanasia.
Conservative Catholics, because of the Kennedy moment and significant cultural challenges began to make more common cause with evangelicals in the realm of politics.
So what was the nature of this era of evangelical political engagement?
The approach was law based. Win political elections and force a turn in the trajectory of American law through political consensus. Overturn an unjust judgment and begin to reestablish a guiding Christian ethos.
Because of the new found and growing partnership with Catholicism by the 1990s most evangelicals had dropped the return to a Protestant guiding ethos in favor of a broadly Christian ethos.
The problem was not the movements ability to access the levers of power so much as the lack of consistent vision and basis for engagement, on what basis had the scriptures called us to retake the culture? Once we retook the culture how would we implement change? How would these efforts be in line with the character and nature of Christianity? Should Christian favor a new church/state paradigm, on what theological basis should our efforts be founded, what appeals ought to be made to non-Christians, what is the Christian viewpoint on holding power and exercising proper judgment in society, what does Christian historical experience have to teach us, etc.?
Over a period of 2 decades (1980s-1990s) evangelicals were a formidable force in American political life. A candidate’s ability to harness the evangelical vote could make or break elections.
With the advent of 2008, it became clear that a candidate could win without worrying about social conservatives, whether evangelical or Catholic.
Declining Cultural Influence
Paradoxically, though not surprisingly, the more socially conservative evangelicals and Catholics engaged in politics the more cultural influence they began to lose. It was not so much that their numbers were on the decline, as there was a near term acceleration in the secularization of the broader culture.
There are many reasons for this increased secularization and loss of influence and a more thorough going analysis is needed to understand the roots of many of these trends.
For the purposes of this essay I will focus on two elements of our political approach that have had unintended consequences. The first is the exclusive focus on law. The focus on law has been made at the expense of engaging culture.
In a modern Democracy what one watches and consumes visa via entertainment and culture can have a larger impact on legal norms, especially as they relate to community judgments on right and wrong. In a Democratic society judgments are often the outflow of forming and yet to be formed cultural expectations. Those expectations are often more successfully shaped by story, narrative, imagery, and cultural mimicry. Such views are not shaped primarily by law judgments first. Law judgments flow from the collective judgments of the society, especially in a culture like ours where individuality and the notion of non-interference are seen as a pillar of cultural norm. Hence, the exclusive law focus has left the broader cultural influences larger unattended too.
The second is the decision to make most of our political engagement decidedly factional. Two points about this. The first is the needless creation of opponents within a two-party process. Opponents will always be created in any political process, but one need not create them ex nihlio as one does when intervening in a two-party contest. Formerly neutral parties become instant opponents when they are engaged in political conflict. The creation of political opponents to the witness of Christianity has facilitated a political logic which makes a sport of running against the old-fashioned and dangerous views of the church. Hence it is thought entire elections can be won by turning the public against the positions of the church. When this happens, needlessly, secularization is grown defacto. The second point is the over-identification with the timeless truths of Christianity with a contemporary political faction. The faction can never carry the weight of the tradition and the over-identification often obscures the teachings of the church, making those truths too obscure for those outside of the faction to grasp, appreciate, or understand.
Our Current Moment
The evangelical movement is at a critical point of decision as it relates to our political engagement. What seems likely is slow growth in a broadened range of engagement.
As Rodney Stark points out in his latest book American Evangelicals Today the future of the church is likely to become more diverse as immigrant evangelical communities (Hispanic, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern) drive growth and more evangelicals are possibly forced to make common cause across ethnic, cultural, and political lines.
One possible result is that the church is likely to become a bit more varied in its approach to public life. How and of what type is very much undetermined.
This is where a more thorough reflection on political theology could be key in helping to shape some of the movement’s engagement moving forward. The nature of political theology and recovering important lessons from the history of the church will be the subject of future pieces. The movement needs to develop tools and reflections that can help more properly guide the engagement of the church.