How Much Do Politics Matter to Evangelicals?

This will push into next week my long-gestating post on whether it’s possible to write persuasively for an evangelical audience, but I wanted to think aloud about one question that’s probably bigger than that post: Just how much do politics matter to evangelicals?

Ryrie, ProtestantsThat first came to mind last month, while I was reading Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World. It wasn’t the focus of my review yesterday for The Anxious Bench, but Ryrie argues that “three of the key ingredients of the world we live in are rooted” — however indirectly and unintentionally — “in Protestant Christianity”: free inquiry, democracy, and “apoliticism.” I don’t think the first two are all that surprising, but the third made me scratch my head. Really, I wondered, Protesants are apolitical?

Here’s what he means:

Protestants might have sometimes confronted or overthrown their rulers, but their most constant political demand is simply to be left alone. Returning to Christianity’s roots in ancient Rome, they have tried to carve out a spiritual space where political authority does not apply and have insisted that that space, the kingdom of Christ, matters far more than the sordid and ephemeral quarrels of this world. The results are paradoxical. Protestants have often been obedient subjects to thoroughly noxious rulers, taking no interest in politics so long as their own separate sphere was respected. It has also meant that rulers who would not or could not respect that sphere have faced unexpectedly stubborn opposition. In the process, Protestants have helped to give the modern world the strange, counterintuitive notion of limited government: the principle that the first duty of the most righteous ruler is to respect his subjects’ freedom and allow them to live their lives as they see fit. (3-4)

So it’s not that Protestants avoid politics altogether, but their forays into that realm (however passionate they can seem) are temporary, conflicted, and grow out of spiritual concerns.

Now, Ryrie is a British scholar and doesn’t make this connection (as best I recall), but I couldn’t help but read that paragraph with contemporary American politics in mind. It does give us a possible way of interpreting recent political behavior by some Protestants in this country, one that might run like this:

Why did white Protestants (especially, but not uniquely, evangelicals) so strongly support Donald Trump in the 2016 election? (Why do most continue to do so in the early months of an administration that can’t even advance its own legislative agenda and seems perpetually on the brink of chaos and scandal?) One explanation often offered is that evangelicals were willing to cooperate with an evidently “noxious ruler” because he — unlike his Democratic rival or predecessor — was willing to respect their “separate sphere” — i.e., by protecting religious freedom as they understand it. That, for example, was Ed Stetzer’s argument two weeks into the new administration:

Neil Gorsuch and Donald Trump
Neil Gorsuch and Donald Trump – White House

Evangelical Trump voters made a choice and many of them saw today, with the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, that their choice was validated. They voted for the sanctity of life and for religious liberty. And they believed that Hillary Clinton would have appointed a justice who would have continued to pull the nation away from those fundamental values.

Sure, “court evangelicals” like Robert Jeffress sound more messianic than pragmatic when they claim that Trump’s election “represented God giving us another chance, perhaps our last chance, to truly make America Great Again.” But does Jeffress speak for rank-and-file evangelicals any more than do us Christian college professors who were so appalled by Trump that we joined the #19Percent in supporting another candidate?

Well, yes, argued my Anxious Bench colleague Kristin Du Mez earlier this year. Unpersuaded by the “It’s the Supreme Court, stupid” argument, Kristin lamented in Religion & Politics that “many evangelicals long ago replaced the suffering servant of Christ with an image that more closely resembles Donald Trump than many would care to admit….Indeed, white evangelical support for Trump can be seen as the culmination of a decades-long embrace of militant masculinity….” Likewise, historian Molly Worthen argued that Trump’s “authoritarian machismo” resonates strongly with the kind of leadership that evangelicals often experience in their churches.

FitzGerald, The EvangelicalsWorthen was writing in response to Frances FitzGerald’s much-discussed popular history, The Evangelicals. But that same book recently inspired a different kind of take from historian Neil J. Young, who admired FitzGerald’s journalistic skill but wished she hadn’t focused so heavily on the recent history of the Religious Right. Recalling the Southern Baptist church where he grew up, Young described a bulletin board that would occasionally include a political pamphlet, but far more often featured

the more pressing concerns of a church body: sign-up sheets for the women’s retreat, the month’s deacon-on-call schedule, pictures from a youth group service project, prayer requests for missionaries in Kenya or the Philippines, an advertisement for a revivalist passing through town.

A hundred years in the future, a historian finding one of those boards preserved from the 1980s or 1990s might thrill at the rich religious lives she could reconstruct from such materials, envisioning more clearly what it meant to be an evangelical in the late twentieth century. Yet the temptation for those writing about evangelicals today is to allow the political part—like the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump—to stand in for the whole. It is to make the great mistake of reaching only for that Christian Coalition handout tucked into the corner of that cork board in order to account for all of the diversity and variety within a religious tradition to which one in four Americans belong.

While he is an expert on the Religious Right, Young

Young, We Gather Togetherwould still stress how low nearly all evangelicals rank politics on their list of priorities. Instead, they pray for their children’s salvation and focus on their own spiritual development. They devote themselves to running their churches and participating in community Bible studies. They volunteer with local ministries and send spare dollars to relief work in Africa. They labor each day with the tension of being in this world but not of it. Evangelicals do all of this out of the desire not only to strengthen their personal faith but also with the hope that they might make some difference in their sphere of influence, however small it might be. For evangelicals, that is the real “struggle to shape America,” and it takes place far beyond the rare moments they find themselves in a voting booth in November.

Baptist historian Thomas Kidd echoed Young’s argument today at the Evangelical History blog: “Sure, there were occasional ‘voter guides’ around at election time in my church a number of years ago, and we pray for the nation and for our elections, but not by assuming the political commitments of our attendees. Electoral politics is hardly the center of my evangelical church life; it is rarely even on the periphery” (emphasis original). In part because the media treat like particularly enthusiastic Trump backers like Jeffress and Jerry Falwell, Jr. as the face of evangelicalism, “outsiders have the wrong idea about what being an evangelical is mainly about.” Kidd concludes:

And in our controversy- and scandal-driven media, there’s little reason for a reporter or writer like FitzGerald to tell the world about evangelicals and their sermons, mission trips, vacation Bible schools, baptisms, and other rituals and routines of church life. But the fact is, those practices (and the vital presence of God in our lives and our churches) are what make us evangelicals.

If that’s what makes us evangelicals, it should pose no existential threat to our evangelical identity if, in 2016, many whites who tell pollsters that they’re evangelicals made a very poor choice for president.

I still think that the evangelical connection to Trump goes deeper than a pragmatic (mis)calculation to protect spiritual autonomy — and that evangelicalism also possesses the resources to correct its own deep-seated problems. But I take seriously the argument of Kidd and Young, which both resonates with my own experience of evangelical churches and comes from scholars who study evangelicalism a lot more closely than I do. And it does seem to fit the larger historical pattern that Ryrie proposes.

What do you think? Do you buy the argument that Protestants are basically “apolitical” (as Ryrie means it), or at least that politics is not nearly as important to (white, American, present-day) evangelicals as horrified anti-Trump Christians like me tend to assume?


11 thoughts on “How Much Do Politics Matter to Evangelicals?

  1. Counterargument: Imagine what it would be like to openly mention being a Democrat in a white Evangelical church that isn’t deeply tied to a college, university, or seminary. That voter guide may be in the corner, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant as a factor in group cohesion.

    Also, the idea that white Evangelicals are only defensively political is meaningless if they 1) have felt constantly attacked by political and cultural elites for over 60 years and 2) assume that the default status of the US is as a (white Evangelical) Christian nation. If those two conditions hold true (and I think they mostly do), an extremely wide scope of political actions and views can be considered “defensive.”

    Finally, the line between religion and politics has never existed in modern US Evangelicalism. See Billy Graham’s apocalyptic anti-Communism as part of his evangelistic ministry (such as at the pivotal Los Angeles Crusade). See the particularly eager reports on missions in Catholic and Communist nations in United Evangelical Action during the 1940s. See the conspiracy theories focused on the EU and the UN that have been integral to dispensationalism from the late 20th century onward. See the hopes of Pentecostals to “take our nation back” as part of the 1990s wave of revivals such as the Brownsville Revival and its Awake America traveling revival meeting. See the fact that the culmination of the Promise Keepers movement was a gathering in Washington, DC. White evangelicals are not always political, but the popular theologies of the movement have been openly and aggressively political for decades.

  2. Apolitical perhaps, but these American Evangelicals are more likely formed and funded by a nostalgic and very white populism of political self-interest rather than by a democracy of the soul. Those with a more democratic heart happily live east of Eden celebrating and awaiting the manifestation of the New Jerusalem, an intercultural, interracial and pluralistic spiritual community. The story of salvation, after all, begins in a rather solitary, apolitical garden but ends in a soulful city in which the stranger, the other and the neighbor, not the self, become the demanding referents of Christian compassion and democratic politics.

    Scott Holland, Slabaugh Professor of Theology & Culture at Bethany Theological Seminary

    1. Are you suggesting “the New Jerusalem,” as you describe it, can be achieved in this age through the implementation of the progressive political agenda?

  3. Rod Dreher, though not an evangelical, and also not a supporter of Trump (he didn’t vote for either of them), has a pretty good ongoing catalog of reasons why so many of us are compelled to vote Trump/GOP in spite of his/its many obvious flaws.

    Hillary and the Dems are committed to a plan where, if you hold to traditional orthodox Christian beliefs about marriage, your florist business will be bankrupted; your small college will become ineligible for student loan funding; you won’t be able to practice law, medicine, the professions, etc. in accordance with your conscience. Basically you will have to choose between Christian conscience and full membership in society.

    That, and filling up towns and neighborhoods with people from hostile alien cultures who have no desire to assimilate into American culture.

    Thus, in spite of deeply disagreeing with the GOP on health care, taxes, Middle Eastern wars, free trade, etc., and being horrified by Trump’s character, I (and I think many others) vote Trump because: “at least he isn’t actively trying to destroy my way of life.” Does that count as apolitical? Don’t know, but that’s what came to mind.

    1. Religious stuff aside, you can see how people might have a negative opinion of the idea of “That, and filling up towns and neighborhoods with people from hostile alien cultures who have no desire to assimilate into American culture” and might consider that kind of racist, right? Most of us aren’t hostile and are actually pretty assimilated.

  4. Definitely extremely political. Evangelical authorities are quick to angrily condemn anyone that steps out of line and suggests not being Republican, but that condemnation is lacking for any other “sin”. Being not-Republican is a death sentence for any influential Evangelical; being a loyal Republican, more than anything else, even evangelizing itself, is the first and strongest indicator of one’s loyalty to the Evangelical “tribe”.

    A pastor or writer or singer or speaker or politician or what have you may be an adulterer, molest teens or children, steal money from the church, or advocate any number of anti-Christian views such as denying help to the sick and the poor, and s/he will be forgiven– so long as s/he votes Republican. We’ve seen it numerous times in the past few years alone. But if that same person dares say “I cannot in my good conscience vote Republican”, s/he quickly becomes a shunned pariah, to never be allowed back in. And again, we’ve seen this several times in the past few years alone.

    If you want to look at what really matters to people, you should see what they choose as the uncrossable lines in their social life. And the actions of the Evangelical community are, collectively, very, very telling.

  5. On some level this does fit with the genesis of the hard Christian Right. Evangelicals as a whole were fairly moderate and voted both ways till the Feds took away the tax exempt status of Bob Jones over their religiously motivated (albeit misguided) positions on racial issues. After that the republicans promised the world while the democrats promised further intrusion. So here we are…..

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