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 ...1