We are neck deep in yet another general election season, and religion is again playing a prime role in shaping the political conversation. Despite the focus both campaigns have given to the flagging economy, issues of religious value and liberty continue to simmer below the surface. And evangelicals again find themselves in the thick of things, whether it's evangelical colleges suing the federal government over mandated coverage of birth control, an evangelical congressman injudiciously clarifying his unyielding stance on abortion, or the entire evangelical electorate facing the (overwhelmingly likely) prospect of giving the lion's share of its vote to a prominent Mormon bishop instead of to the only avowed Protestant on either ticket. Love them or hate them, no one can doubt that American evangelicals are an enmeshed feature of American politics.
Especially since the 1976 election of "born again" Baptist Jimmy Carter, a great many books have been written trying to understand the quality and character of evangelical activism in American public life. The latest such book comes from Wesleyan scholar Kenneth J. Collins, who explores what he sees as an evolving evangelical relationship to power over the past century. In Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration (IVP Academic), Collins considers American evangelical participation in politics since the early 20th century, arguing that evangelicals during this span effectively exchanged a broad and healthy pursuit of cultural influence (positive power) for a narrow and divisive quest for worldly political power (negative power). This shift has resulted in an evangelical public witness that's been both deeply compromised and hopelessly fragmented.
In his serviceable narrative of American evangelicalism, Collins posits that 19th-century evangelicals, refined by the revival fires of the Second Great Awakening, amassed a great stash of cultural capital that they used beneficently to shape societal mores, institutions, and cultural practices. These latter-day evangelicals stand as models of "positive" power, and conspicuously reflect many key Wesleyan ideals. But Collins contends that, as they entered the 20th century, evangelicals dramatically lost their cultural standing, turning toward a "negative," more coercive brand of power as a way to reassert their once-prominent public voices and to reestablish cultural relevance. As they did, they began to mistake the secular political realm for the kingdom of God.
Various factors contributed to the decline of evangelical cultural influence, but none for Collins was more important or more smothering than the rapidly growing bureaucracy of the federal government. From early 20th-century progressives to New Deal liberals, from Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" to Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, Collins paints a darkly disturbing picture of an ever-swelling, liberty-sucking secular state that effectively "displaced" traditional Protestant authority through its ambitions to reach into every dimension of human life. For Collins, the ideological splintering of evangelicalism and its resort to coercive power politics was, at least in part, a misguided and corrupting response to the expanding reach of government muscle.